Why France should NOT ban the burka

June 22, 2009

This piece is a response to an article published by the Australian Herald Sun, forwarded to me by a friend who was interested in my opinion. The article in question discusses the possibility of the French government passing a law to ban the burka. In what follows, I lay out my reasons for thinking that such a ban would be an extremely counterproductive move, and that it is symptomatic of a broader drive to signal out problematic practices in the societies of the Other at the expense of turning a blind eye away from similarly problematic practices at home.

There are several points of contention with the arguments of those who see the banning of the burka as a desirable move.

Firstly, there is the assumption that women wear the burka because they are “forced” into it. The article mentions that if a pending government  inquiry into the matter found that the burka was “forced” it would “contradict republican principles”.

In phrasing the issue as such, it creates a false dichotomy: either you are free or you are oppressed, in which republicanism is associated with unbridled liberty and social and religious practices are reduced to a stifling fundamentalism.  And there is no middle ground. We are encouraged to think that the mater is completely black and white, devoid of any murky shades of grey reflect the complexities of layered identities and social expectations. Which, as any vaguely perceptive person can comprehend, is not an accurate reflection of social reality.

No individual identity comes into existence in a vacuum.

We are all products of our environments: of value systems, institutions, expectations, cultures and traditions that precede us. Through our families, we are constructed in this world through series of interactions (family, friends, authorities). Therefore, because of the fact that we are socially constructed, the notion of a completely pure choice can only ever be a fictional idea because it denies the social forces that surround us. We, as fundamentally social individuals, will always bear an element of our environment in our behaviours, decision and desires.  These factors need to be borne in mind in any discussion of choice vs. imposition

Secondly, the article mentions that “Many see the burka as an infringement on women’s rights and is being increasingly imposed by fundamentalists”. It echoes the argument that says that the burka, and even the less encompassing hijab (veil) are de facto examples of gender oppression and patriarchy. It leaves no room for arguments about why the burka can be desired by women, for example in that it conveys an culturally-contingent image of an ideal femininity, one based on humility and faith.

By the same token, it also encourages us to forget about the ways in which patriarchy manifests itself in different yet comparable ways in Western secular societies. For example, the practice of cosmetic surgery, which pushes women, often young girls, to adhere to a sexualised feminine ideal that is unnatural, often ethnocentric. Or other societal and family pressures, such as the institution of marriage or heterosexuality.

No society is completely devoid of sexism, racism, homophobia or other prejudices; to pretend so is delusional.  There are many examples in our own cultures of how gender values still form, even weigh upon, women. Therefore, when faced with the demonisation of Islamic forms of dress, I am compelled to ask: Why is it that western women feel more affronted by a woman who is humbly covered than one who is exposed? Why do we not repel in disgust at the way the sexualised female body is used shamelessly to sell anything: from fabric softener to metro tabloids (The Sun’s page 3 anyone?).

By signaling out the ways in which a cultural Other is perhaps experiencing injustice, we suspend criticism of the ways in which our own societies perpetuate similar injustices, but in different ways.

Thirdly, ‘cultures’  are never insular, self-contained boxes. Since the ancient days of the Silk Road trading through to European colonialism and then ultra-modern technologies, people have been in contact with different value systems and living, which in turn impact on the form that cultural manifestations take.

Accordingly, it might be useful to ask how the social, economic and political tides of our own times have impacted on the notion of identity of, say, migrant communities in Europe. Or how decades of increasing Euro-western xenophobia, including Islamaphobia, impact on the way that new generations choose to express and articulate their ethnic/religious identities.

The burka, as a type of dress and a SYMBOL like all others, has no meaning in itself. It only comes to acquire meaning when in a given context, and that meaning can change over time as context changes. A classic example is the wearing of the hijab in 20th century Iran: during the rule of the Shah, it was publicly banned. Consequently, women who were opposed to the Shah’s ruthless dictatorship deliberately chose to wear the hijab as a means of expressing their discontent with the regime, of revolting against the established order. To them, wearing the hijab was an act of resistance. Fast forward ten years: after the 1979 revolution and the hijab was forcefully imposed on women, it became the means through which a paranoid conservative government pushed the population into submission. Therefore, it became a symbol of oppression. So within 20 years, the same piece of fabric worn over the head came to mean completely different things to the people wearing it.

By conceiving of the issue in this way, we open ourselves to explanations for Islamic dress that exceed the liberated West vs. oppressed East paradigm. We can come to realise that wearing traditional Islamic dress is not necessarily the manifestation of some age-old archaic tradition of backward desert-dwellers that has no place in today’s society, but a glimpse into deeper issues about forging one’s identity in an ever-changing world. It can, for example, be conceived of as a phenomenon of 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants from ex-French colonies in reaction to their interaction with a hostile, often racist and supremacist, European culture. The burka can also be a means of rejecting what many see as the hyper-sexualisation of women in western cultures, propagated by rampant consumer capitalism, in which the body is just another item used to sell or to be sold.

Fourthly, there is a multiplicity of reasons why a woman could chose to wear the hijab or the burka. Inevitably, will also be cases where women will be encouraged to do so by family members, most often because it conveys the values of ideal femininity and womenhood in some Muslim circles: piety, humility, integrity. By the same token, there are numerous reasons why a woman can chose to diet and to undergo cosmetic surgery, because she is succumbing to western societies’ ideas about ideal femininity, in which one who controls her body, according to certain superficial, even pathological, ethnocentric beauty norms, is also in control of her life. Both are incidents of behaviours that can come about as a result of family/social pressure, and are therefore both problematic, and need do be dealt with sensitively and intelligently so as not to patronize those women involved.

Banning the burka to combat integration problems is as senseless and unproductive as banning collagen lip implants to combat gender oppression.

The most productive tactic is engagement, encouraging public debate, to try to reveal the complex community dynamics and processes of identity construction that affect us all. That cannot be acheived by prohibition. Banning things, whether types of dress, or books or music, constitutes a types of censorship in which something is deemed unacceptable, illigitimate. By doing so, it denies a voice to people who are involved in such practices for complex reasons.

Banning the burka would also marginalize people, push them to the fringes of society which will invariably lead to increased isolation, alienation and bitterness. Instead of solving problems posed in the name of ‘integration’, it will backfire heavily, and, in the heated international climate of stigma surrounding all things Muslim, make the women and families involved feel like they are being discriminated against because of their beliefs and ways of life.

Within today’s extremely fragile geoplolitical situation, to ban the wearing of the burka or the hijab in the name of secular individualism is to accentuate the injustice perpetuated by religion. In doing so, we fool ourselves into thinking that those injustices committed within liberal secular societies are somewhat less serious, less in need of public critique and ban. To ban the burka in France is to perpetuate a myth about the superiority of a secular French identity when faced with religious social paradigms.

To ban anything is to deny people the opportunity to inhabit, explore and discuss all the myriad types of identity that exist beyond narrow tropes defined by fictional, and often politically-loaded, dichotomies.


The lukewarm embrace of conservativism: Euro 2009 vs. Lebanon 2009

June 10, 2009

What a week for far-right-wingers.

As the exit polls of the Lebanese elections were coming through on Sunday evening, displaying unexpected success for the incumbent March 14 block, preliminary figures from the European elections indicated major gains for centre right and even far-right parties across the continent.

Obviously, not all the members of Lebanon’s March 14 group are right-wing: the presence of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and the Democratic Left add a semblance of leftism to the coalition. However, they have allied themselves alongside the decidedly right-wing parties of the Lebanese Forces and the Kata’ib (the founder of the latter, Pierre Gemeyal, was inspired by the impressive display of strength and authority exhibited by the Blackshirts of Mussolini’s Italy). The Kata’ib won 5 seats in this year’s election, up from 2 in 2005. (For a full breakdown of the results of Lebanon’s 2009 parliamentary elecions, see PDF link here)

Notwithstanding, the right-wing/left-wing dichotomy is, perhaps, not as much of a useful lens for analysis in Lebanon as it is in Europe. Right-wing rhetoric in Europe is usually associated with an exacerbated focus on identity politics, whether in terms of nationalism of shaky claims to ethnic purity or authenticity. In Lebanon, the confines of confessionalism dictate that all parties across the political spectrum are equally bogged down in the murky swamps of identity politics.

Arguably, the fact that parties with such diverse political platforms can run together as a ‘coalition’ displays the vaccuousness of the Lebanese block voting system. Another example would be the precarious alliance in the March 8th block between the two Shi’a parties, Hizbullah and Amal, with their pronounced Islamist tendencies, and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). It was no secret that the leaders of the latter two parties, Nabih Berri and Michel Aoun, were not even on speaking terms for much of the pre-election period.

The proverbial elephant in the room remains that Lebanese politics is more about ontology than political policy: Lebanese vote according to what they feel they are, as opposed to who best represents their interests at any given moment.
This is reflected in that the vast majority of Lebanese political parties, with the notable exception of Hizbullah, do not have political programmes or policies. People in Lebanon vote according to sect, longstanding family association, or even campaign slogan, but not concrete policies. It was only after the announcement on Monday of the election results, March 14 said that it was now time to work on their political programme, which would resonate amongst some as a slightly upside-down way of conceiving of the notion of democratic representation and choice.

Admittedly, and as Sunny Hundal has usefully reminded us, the recent success of far-right parties in Europe, like the British National Party, is not due to the identity aspects of their message. Rather, it seems that they have tapped into a policy lacunae left by mainstream parties, in that they address concrete issues that other parties have been hesitant to, namely immigration and employment.

However, the linking of these two themes means that people come to conceive of the employment as inextricably linked with immigration, instead of the lack of corporate responsibility which has led to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs since the beginning of the financial crisis. As opposed to the systematic disempowerment that has been the internationally-widespread result of unregulated, rampant, globalized capitalism, the creation of a rhetorical link between unemployment and immigration by far-right parties has meant that people begin to view their economic hardships in xenophobic tropes.

Similarly, the March 14 forces used a series of divisive references in their election campaigning, both sectarian and xenophobic. One massive March 14 billboard near Sassine Square displayed a defaced FPM billboard with it’s slogan of “Change” scrawled over with a message saying that to vote for the FPM was effectively to vote for Syria. Another billboard for the Lebanese forces read: “You didn’t give them your land, don’t give them your vote” (a referenece to the lands of the inhabitants of southern Lebanon that was occupied by the Israelis from 1982 until 2005). Essentially, the campaigning of March 14 was much more to do with establishing criteria for an “US vs. Them” encounter, a “Clash of Identities” if you will than for rallying support in more positive ways.

(Ok, so March 8th campaigns weren’t that great either. Yeah, the FPM tried to tap into the “Obama effect” by adopting the slogan “Change”. Yet, though not overtly confrontational, their billboards spouting the shallow and sexist slogans of “Sois belle et vote” and “Je vote Orange” are problematic in their own right. See, here, here and here)

This is where an overlap can be discerned in the series of elections that took place on Sunday in different countries. One resounding comparison that can be made between the messages of the victorious March 14 block and right-wing European parties is the extent to which the tactics of fear are deployed to sway voters. Of course, there are deep geo-political discrepancies between Lebanon and Europe (20 years of civil war and occupation immediately spring to mind). However, though the nature of the problems faced by citizens in their respective countries differs, it is the success with which ideological fears are successfully constructed and exacerbated which entices populations to slip into the lukewarm embrace of extreme conservativism.


All along the watchtower: Lebanese Elections 2009

June 7, 2009


Elias is often reluctant to discuss politics. He is your typical fun-loving Beiruti, a sucker for beaches and parties, and a good lot of fun to be around. He comes from a lower-middle class Christian family from a village east of Byblos.

The one time we have discussed his political leanings, Elias said that he is pretty worried that Lebanon will turn into an Islamic country. He feels that the rise of Hizbullah represents a threat to his identity and his history, to all those great things, that joie de vivre, that people from all walks of life seem to tumble head over heels for in Lebanon. Elias defines these positive things, from nightclub culture to a professed ideological pluralism, as inherently Christian, and feels that they are threatened by Lebanon’s non-Christian population, who are the majority.

He seems to conceive of Lebaneseness in exclusively Christian terms, like describing Hizbullah as not Lebanese, but Syrian/Iranian. I responded by mentioning that “Lebanese” was, perhaps, a problematic term in itself. Similar to the way that “British” is problematic: who counts as British and why? How is what is considered Lebanese/British linked to certainhistorical narratives, and not others? Who is excluded?  And what do these exclusions say about those who are included and the system that seeks to maintain inclusion at all costs?

He gets my point, but I can tell that I have not convinced him.

Elias is passionate, if slightly naive, in his arguments, citing those famous figures and members of his own family who fought for the independence of Lebanon and whose dreams and lives would be completely wasted should their vision of a Christian Lebanon be compromised.

In Lebanon, it is notoriaously difficult to change the location of your voting registration. Consequently, new generations return to the villages of their ancestors in order to vote, even if they have lived in Beirut for most of their lives. The pressures and expectations that arise from returning to a family context in order to exercise your political rights seem to be a major factor contributing to voting patterns being reproduced generation after generation. Though they may lead a relatively independent social life removed from too much family interference,  young adults tend to feel the weight of tradition when it comes to the ballot box.

Elias will go and vote in his village today, and will most probably vote according to his family’s leanings, somewhere between the right-wing Kata’ib (Phalange) and the marginally more fascist Lebanese Forces. He will vote for what he feels will best protect a country and a life that he really loves.


Another friend, Mustafa, is proud to announce his support for Hizbullah.

Now, Mustafa seems like an unlikely candidate to fill the “Hizbullah supporter” box.  He is about as far as you can get from the stereotypical bearded, kashlinikov-weilding revolutionary member of what most countries in the West define as a “ẗerrorist organisation”. For one, he is an atheist, and is not afraid to say so. For anoher, his mother is Greek Orthodox, and he has spent the majority of his life living amongst the privileged echelons of francophone Lebanon for a large chunk of his life. And he doesn’t have a beard.

Nevertheless, he maintains strong ideological support for Hizbullah’s policies of resistance and social justice. He admires them for their policies of empowering some of the most disenfranchised communities in the country through education and healthcare services. He admires them for their lack of corruption and integrity, in that their actions have been consistent with their principles, unlike most other Lebanese political parties who have been known to change their allegiance at the drop of a hat.

Consistent with his religious ambivalence, Mustafa believes in a secular Lebanon. He is convinced that the only possible avenue for secularism to take foot is through voting in the Hizbullah-led March 8th opposition. I ask him how a self-professed “Party of God”, the “Islamic resistance”, for all its virtues, can ever seriously proclaim to follow a secular agenda. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Mustafa responds that the March 8th coalition are committed to combatting sectariansm, no better exemplified by the fact that Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the Christian component of the opposition, was a vocal opponent of the 1989 Taif Accord. The document that tentatively brought Lebanon’s 15 year-long civil war to a close, the Taif Accord were decisively sectarian, in that they did not break with  Lebanon’s confessional political system which dictates that certain government posts have to be filled only by members of certain religious groups (President: Christian; Prime minister: Sunni; Speaker of Parliament: Shi’a). Rather, Taif merely reshuffled the powers attributed to each of there positions, instead of ridding the system of its religious basis altogether. Aoun took a pro-secular stance way before anyone else (and was even admonished for it by Western powers who supported Taif) and therefore represents a movement that can bring secularism to Lebanon. Not surprisingly, Mustapha did not mention what Hizbullah’s role would be in that process…

Mustapha’s paternal family is from the Bekka valley, and if he wants to vote he will have to effectuate the 4 hour-long  there and back to the village in which he is registered. He is unsure of whether or not he will make the effort, since he is confident that Hizbullah will win in his constituency anyways. I ask him if this certainty does not translate into complacency, and that surely he should do everything in his power to ensure that his ideals are followed through and vote.

Perhaps, he replies. But the most important is that if the resistance ever needs me, I would definitely be there.

I chuckled at his comment, and explained that I thought that the resistance fighter beard would severely cramp his style.


Nadia will not vote because she doesn’t believe that her vote will actually change anything in Lebanon’s confessionalist political system.

Born into a secular Shi’a family in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Nadia self-defines as an agnostic, works in a bar, loves a good party; basically, not your average girl from a Shi’a background in Lebanon. She describes her self as “politically” supportive of Hizbullah, in terms of their emphasis on social justice for the disenfranchised and resistance against Israeli aggression and occupation, but she does not feel that they provide a compelling social vision for her generation. Nadia doesn’t feel like she should have to dress in a certain way or believe in certain tenets in order to be a virtuous citizen, and she laments Hizbullah’s conservative slant on those issues.

So she won’t vote at all. I asked her why she doesn’t vote blank, why she doesn’t use her voice to express her frustration with a polarised political system that does not represent her convictions or future hopes. She says that people like her are a minority, that the vast majority of Lebanese comfortably situate themselves within the boxes offered both by family tradition and by the March 14th majority/March 8th opposition dichotomy. Maybe, I say. But maybe also people who feel like you don’t say it, either because they are afraid to break with tradition, or because, like you, they do not think that their discontent can ever amount to a significant challenge to the status quo.

I continue: can you imagine the potential of a “Blank vote” campaign, which would have united people like yourself around a common cause? Imagine, if, amongst all the nauseating electoral billboards that have been ravaging roadside and countryside in this country spouting shallow principles (“Change” (FPM), “Resistance” (Amal), “Stability” (Kata’ib) etc), imagine if the ideological onslaught was broken by huge, white, blank billboards? Imagine the peace of mind that it would have brought to those doubtless hundreds and probably thousands who are tired of the numbing rhetoric, who are fed up of the spectacle and hollowness and denounce the Lebanese political system for what it is: a pile of dynastic, selfish, sectarian bullshit.

She shrugs: politics has never done anything good for this country, and it wont start anytime soon. And that is it. A bright young mind, a mover and shaker in civil society groups, has been alienated by the political process.

Elections, but democracy?

Lebanese democracy, though definitely a few steps ahead of political systems in other Arab countries, is deeply flawed on many levels. Beyond the staticism provided by Lebanon’s confessionalist system, the entrenched interests of family dynasties and big big bucks are perpetuated in a mafia-like manner. Most of the parliamentary seats, approximately 100 out of 128, are uncontested: they have already been determined according to trade-offs in parliament. The remaining 28 seats are those that will swing the balance.

There will be no surprises, for example, in Beiut III disctrict, which is already known will go to Saad Hariri’s Future Party. On the other hand, the competition is smouldering in Beirut I, where the Christians of Achrafieh are divided between the right-wing parties in the March 14 bloc, namely, Lebanese Forces and the Kata’ib, and the more ‘liberal’, progressive FPM of the March 8th opposition.

The hope is that this competition, in Beirut I or the other contested areas, will not degenerate into violence, which so far, as of 2pm on election day, it has not. Things have been mostly quiet so far, with a few skirmishes breaking out here and there, but nothing more serious.

All along the watchtower

The real test will be how things pan out after the results are announced, as soon as tonight and then onto Monday. To be sure, the government has taken huge measures to ensure that the peace is kept: some 50,000 security personnel have been deployed around this small country of 4 million.

Just yesterday, coming back from a pre-election beach session north of Beirut, we passed a convoy of about 20 tanks riding down the highway at about 50 km/h. Each one was topped with 10 smiling soldiers, a couple of whom were proudly displaying machine guns, winking at passing cars and generally lapping up every minute of their short road trip. In a country where men’s egos tend to be reflected inflated by the size of their cars (hence the popularity of Hummers), these soldiers were obviously revelling in their newly-acquired supa-coolness. They should enjoy it while it lasts. Because these poor blokes are the first line of defence in preserving Lebanon’s precarious order, and will be drawn into any eventual street fighting faster than you can say “There must be some kinda way out of here”.  And then, surely, their stylish khaki and big guns won’t be making them feel so cool after all…

All just another chapter in the tragi-comedy that is the unfolding of Lebanese history.


Another side of the Nakba

June 4, 2009

“Bil ruh, bil damm, nafdeek ya Filisteen!” (With soul, with blood, we will redeem you, Palestine)

These words were being shouted last week in small pockets across the planet as Palestinians marked the 61st anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophe of their expulsion from their lands and homes that resulted from the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

From the West Bank and Gaza to Jerusalem, from refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria to the  Palestinian diaspora all over the globe, their voices resound in a haunting lament of a tragedy many are keen to forget. It is a selective memory that yields an international silence and tendency to foster an amnesia about what happened, and continues to happen, to Palestinians as part and parcel of Israeli state-building policies that makes remembering the Nabka an act of resistance in itself.

In Shatila camp, Beirut, the slogan floated up to my ears through the mouths of young children. These five and six-year-olds, most not yet of schooling age, were already acutely aware of the their identity as both Palestinians and refugees, a people who had suffered a traumatic exile from their country and were still waiting, over six decades later, for justice to be delivered in the form of returning to a land they still call their own. Dressed in sky-blue and brown boy-scout outfits, black tunics with bright red and orange embroidery and long white Bedouin robes, they marched determinedly through the narrow and shady alleys of the camp, excitedly waving Palestinian flags and chanting the community’s hopes for the future.

The right to return is a focal theme for Nakba remembrance in the Lebanese refugee camps, which is why May 15 is a day which signifies more than just the commemoration of the past.  In Lebanon, Palestinians live in a constant state of both legal and social discrimination.  They are barred from entering over 70 professions, are not allowed to buy property outside the camps’ boundaries and suffer social prejudice on a daily basis.  More than merely a memory, Nakba commemorations come to constitute a ritualised, public moment in which a dispossessed people in existential limbo posit a vision of stability and belonging in their homeland.

It is these notions that are nurtured amongst the young generations; these demonstrating politicised pre-schoolers whose most immediate threat to the status quo was poking someone’s eye out with the flags that they frantically waved in the heated excitement of the moment:

“Bil ruh, bil dam, nafdeek ya Filisteen!”

*    *    *

Later the same day, I attended a lecture at the American University of Beirut by Azmi Bishara, ex-Knesset MP  and National Democratic Assembly party founder, an event organised by the AUB Palestine Cultural Club and the Issam Fares Institute to mark the Nakba anniversary.

The conference hall was jam-packed, yet you could have heard a pin drop at certain moments of his speech, his booming voice so arrestingly passionate that those present compulsively held their breaths.

Bishara touched on a variety of issues, from the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements and the apartheid wall to the importance of a united Arab stance vis-a-vis Palestine. He also denounced the tendency of international rhetoric to describe the Palestinian problem as a “conflict” instead of “occupation” and was critical of the fact that the negotiation process is framed in terms of “peace” instead of a movement for justice.

Finally, he came to the subject of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, saying that there can be no solution to the question of Palestine without the right to return, and that it is the duty of Palestinians in the camps to continue the resistance.

After the talk, I asked my Palestinian friend and colleague, Salam, what she thought of Bishara’s insistence on the responsibility he placed on the inhabitants of the camp to resist. “In principle,” she replied, “I agree with what he said. It is our right as a people who have been dispossessed to reclaim what is ours. But in practice, it is very, very difficult for us, especially in the conditions that prevail in the camps.”

She never specified if she was speaking about resistance in terms of an armed struggle or the task of keeping alive a nationalist cause through constant reiterations, year in and year out, of an identity based on increasingly distant horizons. But she was probably referring to both.

*    *    *

The day’s events, the demonstrating children, the unflinching politician and the diplomatic reaction of one who had suffered as a refugee for her entire life, combined to give real substance to a question of immediate saliance. It is a notion raised by anthropologist Dianna K. Allan in the volume Nakba: Palestine, 1948 and the claims of memory (2007, Columbia University Press): “Do institutionalised commemorative practices […] make it harder for subsequent generations of refugees to articulate a sense of identity and belonging in terms of present realities and their own hopes for the future?” (Allan, 2007, 257)

Alternatively, I contemplated: what space does the rhetorical insistence on the right to return leave for the young generations in the camp to carve out an identity not separate from, but possibly parallel to, Palestinianness as defined by resistance and displacement?

To pose such a question is not saying that it is time to “move on” or for the great injustice of the Nakba to become, with time, silently swallowed. It is, rather, to suggest that present commemorations of the Nakba could be hegemonic, in that they stifle the possibility of young Palestinians legitimately exploring new forms, new expressions of their identity beyond the trope defined by the belonging/displacement or resistance/capitulation dichotomies.

I took my query to 26 year-old Ahmed. Though training to be a boxer, he is one of the only Palestinians I have even met who is ambivalent about resistance based on an exclusively Palestinian identity. Ahmed self-defines as both Lebanese and Palestinian, on the basis that it is natural for him to adopt part of the identity of the country in which he is born and has spent their entire life. However, he is well aware that this is perspective  is harshly looked down upon within the Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon.

“When talking to Palestinians, I don’t say I’m Lebanese, they would hate me for that,” Ahmed begins. “Outside the camp, I tell people I’m from Beirut, or from Lebanon. But, I don’t let Palestinians know how I feel, it would be strange for them. They love Palestine so much, they would think that I didn’t love it as well, which is not true.”

When asked if he thought this was a rare phenomenon in the camp, he said “You can find a lot of people that think this way, but they will never say it. They are afraid of the reactions of the community and their friends.”

Admittedly, Ahmed does not exhibit the attachment to his Palestinian roots and history that is stereotypical of refugees in Lebanon. Although he knows the name of his family’s village, that of Tubas near Nablus, he does not know where his father was born, whether in Lebanon or Palestine and he is therefore uncertain about how far removed he is, generationally, from Palestine. He also admits to not knowing exactly when the Nakba commemorations take place, saying that he didn’t even know of the most recent one until one of his friends had mentioned it over the weekend.

Throughout the conversation, it emerged that Ahmed was less concerned with debating the implications of the right of return and the main axes of contemporary Palestinian identity in the camp than voicing his deep desire to leave Shatila.

“Every single day, every single night, I dream about leaving the camp. It is the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning.” He goes on to say that he knows people that have money and could leave the camp if they wanted. “They don’t, and I don’t know why,” but speculates that it is a combination of social expectations and political binds.

Ahmed also dreams about other things. He harbours immense hopes for the simple and taken-for-granted rights to a viable employment, to own property, to travel unimpeded, to marry whomever and be able to pass citizenship, the rights that he has never had, onto his children.

In many ways, with the glorification of a nation that achieves mythical proportions and the ideological insistence on future belonging, contemporary Nakba commemorations in the camps perhaps overshadows the more immediate aspirations and needs of young refugees. For Ahmed, and doubtlessly countless others amongst the several hundred thousand refugees scattered about the country, the real issue at stake in being a Palestinian in Lebanon is the extent to which they are prevented from fulfilling dreams other than those that revolve around an absent homeland.


Dancing in the streets, remembering a catastrophe

May 19, 2009

(An abriged version of this piece appeared in the Daily Star on 16 May 2008 under the title “Palestinians mark 61st anniversary of Nakba with artistic activities)

The bright festive scenes that graced the usually subdued main alleyway of Shatila refugee camp on Friday were, on first glance, misleading. With over 150 hyper-active children wielding paintbrushes and pens, drawing upon metres of paper scrolled over the walls and dancing Palestinian dabke to the booming Arabic beats that reverberated between the cramped appartments, it was hard to imagine that a catastrophe was being remembered.

Thursday 14 May marked the 61st anniversary of the Nakbe, a date signifying the beginning of the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands and homes which occurred as part of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Organised by the Palestinian NGO Najde Al-Ijtima3iyya, the artistic activities taking place in the streets of Shatila on Friday were just one of several events over the past few days geared towards commemorating the Nakbe, including theatre and music productions in the UNRWA schools and demonstrations.

Maissa Akkileh, coordinator of vocational training at the Nadje centre in Shatila, says that the importance of holding events to mark the Nakbe is two-fold. “Firstly, it is essential for new generations to know what happened to their families and their ancestors. Secondly, it is about insisting that, as Palestinians, we have a right to return to the country that was forcefully taken from us.”

Indeed, for the estimated 400,000 inhabitants of Lebanon’s many refugee camps, many of them third and fourth generation Palestinians, remembering the Nakbe is about more than just paying abstract homage to a country suffering from over six decades of occupation and apartheid. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the painful and persistent reality of their displacement and consolidate hope that they will one day be able to return home.

“It’s my country,” sighs 17 year-old Dima, “even if I’ve never seen it. We need to inform the world that we have not forgotten our right to go back”.

The dream of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to return to a home is accentuated by the difficulties they face here. Unlike in other Arab countries, such as Jordan and Syria, children born of Palestinian descent in Lebanon are not eligible for Lebanese nationality, and they face a string of legal hurdles and social stigmas which prevent them from leading sustainable livelihoods.

“We are not people anymore,” laments Dima’s father, Imad. “No one remembers the Nakbe, except for the Palestinians. This is a sad and painful day for us.”

Surprisingly, Imad, Maissa and many others are optimistic about the eventual return of Palestinians to their homeland. “If not today, then tomorrow,” says Imad reassuringly. “If not for me, then for my children or grandchildren.”

It is this positive vision for tomorrow that shines through in today’s event. By providing a creative place for the children of the camp to focus on an eventual resolution to the tragedy of exile that underlies their history and their identity, Najde’s remembrance of the Nakbe seeks to nurture hopes for a better future that can lift these children beyond the often dismal realities of refugee life.


Refugee Camp Fashion

May 14, 2009

“Are you wearing contact lenses today?” one of my students pipes up in the front row, interrupting me in the middle of a doubtlessly fascinating tirade on the difference between subject and object pronouns.

“No,” I reply, “I just forgot my glasses at home”.

“Well you look better without them,” she says decisively.

“Perhaps, but I can’t actually see very well without them either. So which is better, fuzzy vision or looking good?”

She smiles, as do the other two girls in the classroom; I think that by now they are accustomed to my cynicism.

These sort of incidents have been a recurring template during my days volunteering at the centre of the Palestinian NGO Najde in Shatila refugee camp, Beirut. Whether it’s suggestions that I should pluck my unruly eyebrows or straighten my unbrushed hair, or comments that my blue rubber flipflops are too boyish and should be exchanged for pink or yellow sandals with glistening fake diamonds, both young girls and adult women are quick to question my fashion sense (or apparent lack thereof).

But I’m not offended by these comments. Mostly, they make me laugh because I realize that, in the context of the camp and specifically considering the values that inform gender roles there, I must come across as more of a nihilistic androgynous hobo than the quirky post-hippie that I otherwise seem to come across as.

It is true that when stood next to many of the young women who are involved in the Najde centre, both students and employees, I look like a bit of a scruff. These are chics that have a selection of shoes and matching belts in every colour of the rainbow, wear tight-fitting jeans and gaze at you from beneath thick, immaculate eye make-up. Some get around in short sleeves and skimpy skirts while other, more conservative ones sport tank-tops over tight long-sleeved shirts and top the outfit off with an elaborate array of layered and patterned material for a hijab.

One of my students, 17 year-old Razan, is like a chameleon. Tall and willowy but with a shy smile, she loves drawing and dreams of one day becoming a fashion designer (luckily for her, not one of the 32 proffessions that the Lebanese government bans from Palestinians). Every day she breezes into class in an intricate outfit based around one colour and complemented with either black or white. One day it is crimson red, the next a daffodil yellow, and the next lush grass green, each item of each outfit picked to complement the shade of the day and always perfected with a white or black lace hijab. And she looks fabulous!

Just last week, we went on an outing for all the employees of the Najde centres in Beirut, Saida and Sour. In three busses we were taken to a stunning, hidden part of the Litani valley near Nabatiyeh, to a restaurant whose seating area was nestled on the bank of the river, amongst orange and lemon groves.

Some 200 of us sat from morning till evening smoking shisha, eating mezze and dancing dabke, but amongst us, there was a hard-core few who never left the dancefloor. They boogied for hours and hours, twisting their butts in super tight skinny jeans, gyrating their hips accentuated by thick sparkling belts and shaking their shoulders laden with string after string of costumer jewellery. They looked like their could have just stepped out of Top Shop on Oxford street. Except, contrary to the trend of many of their Muslim sisters in the UK who are increasingly turning towards traditional Islamic dress to manifest their piety, these demons on the dancefloor simply wore matching white lace hijabs alongside their revived retro accessories.

Increasingly, I admit that I am perplexed by the apparent contradiction of these young girls who dress in a trendy, flattering, even sexy way, and then don the hijab as an outwards sign of piety or even modesty. Obviously, some would be encouraged to wear it but I also think many do out of choice.

I wonder if, perhaps, for some of these young women, complementing their fashionista desires with a variant of Islamic dress is a conscious means of trying to express their integrity within a tight-knit society where a woman’s virtue is still defined in conservative terms (virginity, purity, loyalty, motherhood etc). Maybe it is their way of negotiating a middle ground through social gender expectations and contemporary popular culture.

Similarly, my own conscious fashion choices are equally motivated by my ideological (read feminist) leanings: a desire to not fall into what I often see as the mainstreaming of sexual objectification of women in popular culture and media. Or not bowing to partiarchally-defined standards of beauty, like removing body hair.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to making oneself feel good and confident by looking pretty, but I feel that we should explore what ‘prettiness’, or even beauty, means to us creatively, and not just cut-and-paste ready-consumable models of beauty.

But particularly, in the camp, I’m also keen to dress ‘modestly’ so as not to draw too much attention to myself as an outsider, especially wary of not feeding into the stereotype of western women as sexy, or even loose. Where some of my students wear tanks tops, for example, I would never.

So within the context of the camp, set against these negotiated femininities, when pressed about my appearance (unshaven, bespectacled, dressed in loose long silk skirts and baggy tops) I obviously do not launch into a full-length feminist tirade. I do not think that would be relevant to the girls and women there.

Amongst all of the other battles that everyone is fighting in that camp, is the notion of the sexualisation/objectification of women one that they would feel was relevant to them? Is their beauty, their sexuality (often played out within the confines of their religious traditions) not being deployed as a source of feminine power, as it is often in Western societies?

Nevertheless, I do try to respond with inklings of critical thinking about what it means to dress in certain ways. A couple days ago, I told one of my students that I didn’t care about fashion, that it was more important for me to focus on personal interactions. Interestingly, I find myself echoing the argument given by some Muslim women about the veil: that they prefer to spend their energies working on perfecting their insides rather than embellishing their outsides. Slowly, I have been realising that I am articulating my own secular reasons for modesty within a quasi-religious discourse, perhaps because I think it will resound more deeply within my interlocutors.

When Fatmeh, the woman who makes tea and coffee at the centre, tried to pluck my eyebrows, I resisted, initially laughing, but then saying that I was very grateful for the body that nature (not God, but maybe same idea) had given me. That Alhamdulillah, my body functioned well, and I was satisfied with it as a whole, despite its imperfections, even sometimes despite my own insecurities.

I do not seek to be a role model, which is probably realistic because my relative strangeness in terms of appearance might foreclose that. I am also wary of coming across as some eco-feminist warrior missionary, for such dogmatism is surely never useful either. But I do consider my work in the camp, with the children and adolescents, as one of encouraging self-confidence in all its different forms, not just academically, and nurturing notions of critical thinking.

I will just seek to be true to my own ethics, as they morph and fuse with others, and try to articulate what I feel is interesting and valuable about such explorations.


Great feminists think alike

April 23, 2009

“Top 12 Reasons why the Billboard Campaign ‘Sois belle et vote’ is offensive to women

1) Oh, so now you’ve noticed that women are important? When you want their votes? […]

9) Wouldn’t it be better if you sought to change the Lebanese elections system so that candidates are forced to represent issues and not religions? Wouldn’t that make more sense for women voters?

10) Where are women’s rights in the 19 elaborate points of your political platform? Hmm?”

Big-up to the Feminist Collective for further contributing to debunking this patronising poster…


Sois belle et vote

April 22, 2009

The Lebanese obsession with ‘beauty’ boggles. Topsy-turvy priorities, misplaced energies, desires for abstraction or forgetting, conviction that superficial reconstruction can produce some semblance of substantive healing, all rolled into one.

In a country whose wounds of constructed sectarian identity still split their shallow stitching on a regular basis and gush forth in streams of crimson, a fair share of the citizenry spend more time working on their tans and abs than engaging in any amount of introspection that could potentially yield a viable reconciliation.

In a country devoid of welfare services for its own citizens, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are pushed to the margins of society and denied access to sustainable livelihoods, banks offer loans for cosmetic plastic surgery.

In a country where political interaction is characterised by blame and self-absolution, where the family names of politicians have circulated for sixty years like some nauseating broken record, where blokes once imprisoned for war crimes now sit comfortably in ministries, the potential of exercising of one’s political voice is packaged in patronising chauvanism and stained in skin-deep normalisation:


“Be beautiful and vote”: this is a particularly demeaning election poster from the Tayyar Al-Watany Al Hurr (Free Patriotic Movement, Christian members of the opposition led by Michel Aoun) for the upcoing parliamentary elections on 7 June.

Particularly noteworthy are the use of the French language (obviously tapping into that section of upper-middle class Christians in Lebanon for whom speaking bad French is a status-symbol) and the glaringly Occidental ethno-centric beauty norms. And these alongside from the jaw-dropping belittlement of Lebanese women voters, once again reduced to the sum of their aestethically-pleasing parts.

Sorry to burst you bubble, but, No, love, voting will not make you beautiful. It won’t make you a pouty French demoiselle either.

It could, however, result in some sort of minimal reshuffling of those in power, but nothing more radical than that…

On second thought, maybe I’ve been too harsh. Perhaps it is in fact the realisation of being confronted with the near-inevitable perpetuation of Lebanon’s stale and narrow confessionalist system that pushes young women voters to conceive of their voting in more immediate tangible terms: “If I don’t vote, not much will change. If I do vote, not much will change either, but at least I can pretend that it will make me look like Carla Bruni”.


The Funeral of Kamal Medhat

April 5, 2009

These are some photos I took last week at the funeral of Kamal Medhat, one of the leaders of the PLO in Lebanon who was assasinated  on Monday 23rd March near the Ain al Hilweh refugee camp. The funeral was held near the Shatila camp in Beirut on Wednesday 25th March.


Celebrating Mothers in Shatila

March 29, 2009

The much-sung stresses of public transport in Beirut: nightmare traffic; shared taxi (‘service’) drivers that take you half-way round the city to your destination instead of a more direct route; being overcharged because of ones foreingness… Bref, hassle and lateness, combined with wind and rain, severely dampening my Friday morning.

But my spirits were immediately lifted by the pulsating bass and rhythmic clapping that floated out from the third floor of the Najde centre. The beats got louder as I hurried up the stairs and finally emerged into the big room decked out for the occasion with a low wooden stage at the front, over a hundred chairs and a booming sound-system blaring out Arabic beats. Mother’s Day celebrations in Shatila refugee camp.

There was not a free seat in the house, and almost no space to stand either. Women and children of all ages seemed crammed into every available cubic inch: perched on each others’ laps, balanced on the backs of chairs, cradled on hips. And all but the youngest newborns were contributing to the music with their hands and feet, while attentively following with enjoyment the movements of the young dancers on the stage.

There were eight girls and boys, no more than seven years old, decked out in silken shirts the colours of the Palestinian flag and black and white kuffiyehs. Their movements were out of synch, sometimes clumsy, and I could see the ones in the back row attentively watching the movements of those in the front in order to know what was coming next. They stamped their feet and moved their hips to the throbbing beat of the music, occasionally throwing in a twirl and a waving of the kuffiyeh.

Now, I think that it is impossible for a kid to not look adorable when their dancing, no matter how technically imperfect the performance. And these little debutants were no exception. In fact, their charm was multiplied by the infusion of energy coming from the audience. The enjoyment of their spectators translated into their own pleasure in their performance, played out on their faces as the concerted effort one makes to not let concentration be disturbed by a smile.

After the dance, there was a short skit  performed by some older girls, aged between 11 and 13. They were dressed in long black jalabiyyas with bright red, orange and green hand-woven embroidery round the collar, products of Najde’s handicrafts programme. Some lingered in the background, imitating women’s household chores of sweeping, cleaning and cooking, while others read out passages praising the hard work of mothers, and women in general. Their efforts, commitment and sacrifices, the girls reminded us, should be remembered not just on Mother’s Day, but every day.

More dances followed, one by a different group of girls similarly dressed in embroidered robes, and then another by a group of 12-13 year-old-boys, clad in black and white checkered t-shirts with matching kaffiyyes wrapped around their heads. The music started with an empty stage, and as the beat progressed, one at a time the boys hopped on the stage from infront, each of them wiggling on stage in a way that way half-dabke and half-hip-hop, until they were all taking turns getting down, to the great pleasure of their spectators, who continued clapping in rhythm.

Half-way through the performance, a member of the audience joined the boys on stage, waving a red and white kafiyyeh round her head in circles. After a few seconds, it was obvious that she was the mother of one of the boys, as her attention was focused mostly on him and she encouraged him with endearing gestures. Very soon after, she was joined by another woman from the audience, also a mother of one of the dancing boys, and the two women proceeded to gyrate their hips, twirl their hands  and wave their checkered scarves energetically, while the boys wiggled around them.

The vitality of the dancing was contagious. At the mothers’ intervention, the audience went from enthusiastic to wild, some women rising from their seats to clap and stamp their feet, others covering their mouths with their hand to wave their tongues back and forth in their mouths and formulate the iconic ‘u-lu-lu-lu-lu’ syllables of celebration.

Between my own clapping and laughter, I thought about how wonderfully different this series of children’s performances was from all that I had ever staged in primary school. My head was flooded by images of my young self and my companions at our devastatingly British schools in that far-away Caribbean colony: bleached white polo shirts, navy blue trousers and skirts; all stood in utmost obedience in a regimented line; orderly taking turns to articulate some perfectly memorised, formulaic phrase. And the soft, proper clapping of our parents, fit for a golf tournament, as they satiated themselves in our groomed, disciplined behaviour. All of that worlds apart from the veritable festivities now frolicking before me.

It was all so imperfectly passionate, so spontaneous. The lines between audience and performer were porous, their relationship symbiotic, one giving life to the other according to  the unpredictability of inspiration. The performance came to be one in which script was negligible and impulse was everything, in which mothers and sons laughed and danced together on a stage but not as a spectacle; their places there were as entertained as well as entertainers, as subjects in their own enjoyment as opposed to objects in the enjoying eyes of others.

But I did not have long to reflect much more on such things, because Maissa, the director of the Najde centre at Shatila, was pulling me by the arm up onto the stage, where the boys and their mothers had been joined by at least 10 more people, adults and children alike. My feigned reluctance was inadequate to prevent myself being hauled amongst the jiving crowd, where I tried in vain to shake my hips in similar smoothness to those of my colleagues’, to little avail and the amusement of much of the audience. But I harnessed my embarrassment, tried my best to keep in rhythm with the drums blaring out from the speakers, and grinned along with all the smiling faces around me.