Posts Tagged ‘Lebanon’

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All along the watchtower: Lebanese Elections 2009

June 7, 2009

Elias

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.

Mustafa

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

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.

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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.

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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…

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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:

tayyar

“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”.

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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.

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Feminists in the streets: IWD 2009, Beirut

March 11, 2009

There’s nothing like a good, fiery, reclaim the streets demonstration to spark up a cause. And I think that the events conducted last weekend by the Feminist Collective, in Beirut to mark International Women’s Day 2009, in which I am proud to have participated, did exactly that.

On Saturday, we were dispatched in groups of 3-5 to 12 different places in Beirut in order to distribute leaflets and raise awareness about IWD, as well as attempt to engage passers-by in discussion about the situation of women in Lebanon. The stark variation between the different parts of town represented the vast disparity that exists in such volatile closeness in Lebanon: here an up-market shopping area, there a university street; here a trendy bar-street, yonder a refugee camp. Differences, that, of course, are also played out in terms of religion as well, and when mixed in with the vectors of class, income, education and ethnicity, make for an impressive, if not downright perplexing, spectrum in terms of differences in opinion. To quote a Daily Star journalist that wrote about the event:

“One Christian woman insisted her fellow Lebanese Christian women were free and considered “gender oppression a Muslim problem.” A Muslim woman meanwhile argued that sexual harassment and rape resulted from a woman’s inappropriate dress and behaviour.”

But then again, this is Lebanon, and the extent of contrasting opinions should not surprise us. However, I do believe that such contrasts have lss to do with substantive differences in opinion and more to do with the way that sectarian differences reside in the fore of so many Lebanese minds, in that sectarian axes of identity are maintained, cultivated and perpetuated as an overarching mindset.

For me, the most interesting thing when listening to women respond to the question “what is your opinion of women in Lebanon today?” was the tendency that interlocuteurs had of interpreting, or framing the question along sectarian lines, instead of latching onto the pan-woman message of solidarity that constituted our approach and, ultimately, our agenda. Though I was based in the mainly-Christian northern Beirut suburb of Kaslik, I later heard that this tendency manifested itself in practically all of the other areas as well.

“Which women?”, they would ask in reply, as if the national qualifier of “Lebanese” was not sufficient detail. When an activist insisted upon the Lebanese element, the interlocutor would often point out that situations varied significantly according to which “society”, ie sect, they came from. In response to this, we tended to highlight the sort of legal and societal problems that are faced by all women across the board in Lebanon: from the law forbidding a Lebanese woman to pass her citizenship onto her children if she marries a foreigner and a dire lack of anti-domestic violence legislation, to discrimination in terms of employment and wages and common-place incidents of sexual harassment. Well, yes, they would eventually admit, these are some things faced by all us Lebanese women…

Another thing that impacted on me on our day of grassroots awareness-raising was the extent of the pessimism. When asked what could be done to remedy these perceived gender injustices, many women just shrugged their shoulders, pouted their lips and raised their eyebrows in a sort of hopeless lack of inspiration. When talking with other activists in other areas, I heard that such hopelessness was manifestly stronger, and far more depressing for the activists, in the refugee camps, where many women highlighted the problems they encountered on a day-to-day basis in terms of feeding their families. There, in positions of disempowerment that exceed the gender issue, talk of women’s lib seemed to understandably fall near the bottom of the priority list.

*    *    *

Sunday, International Women’s Day, proved a more positive day for us ‘feminists’. Perhaps it was the unity and strength we felt in numbers, many of us proudly sporting our black shirts with ‘feminist’ boldly emblazoned in white on the front.

Our first event was a sit-in staged on Hamra street under the theme of solidarity with migrant workers. Along with the issue being one of increasing debate in Lebanon, I personally think that it was a strong and aptly selected banner to rally under, because it succinctly articulates broader feminist agendas of uniting struggles for gender justice with liberation along race and class lines. I felt that the demo was given a definite boost when we activists (Lebanese, American, European) were actually joined by some Filipino migrant workers. Not only for the egoistic purpose that it lent us ‘activists’ a mark of authenticity, which it undeniably did, but also because I hoped it would, in some small way, give those migrant workers confidence that whatever struggles they faced on a daily basis did not occur in isolation, and therefore that there could be, at some point, some hope for solidarity yielding an end to marginalisation.. However cliché that might come across as…

And although the amount of people who would have witnessed the event was probably restricted due to the quietness of a Sunday afternoon, the media coverage was fair. Next year, however, someone from one of the groups involved needs to contact more international and Arab media outlets (AlArabiya was the only one there that I noticed). And thanx to our resident film-maker, a video has appeared on YouTube. (I, personally, would have opted for something more mellow musically…)

The second event was a sit-in on the Cornishe in Ein AlMreisse. This time, we were less cushy than in funky, laid-back Hamra, manifested in our initial reluctance to go about distributing leaflets to the many families enjoying a Sunday stroll and shisha by the sea. But the debates sparked first by out flyering, and then by our banners and megaphones asserting our feminist ideals, made it entirely worth it. One bloke was very happy to spout on about how women were, in fact, really only useful in the kitchen. Oh, and for child-rearing as well. And, to much shock, he actually said that wearing lipstick is an invitation to rape… And then another woman started yelling about how we’d gotten it all wrong: didn’t we understand that a woman is considered worthless if she does not seek to beautify herself, that to not embellish oneself physically is a lifetime commitment to spinsterhood?

We welcomed these reactions, and did not face them with words, but with multi-coloured banners, reading “No Woman Deserves Violence, Ever”, “Where are women’s rights?”, “Give us 4 years in Parliament and see how we run the country” and “None of us are free till all of us are free”. There were also others who replied, members of the public, who argued of their own accord, and voiced approval for our willingness to tackle these issues that are so often silenced…

And even though, I admit, even though I felt a bit uneasy amongst the shouting and the being stared at, pointed at by a crowd of curious/disturbed/grateful/angry/congratulatory people, the feeling that we were there, pushing these issues to the fore, was far more significant. We were confronting taboos, provoking the general public, without ever being violent or disrespectful. In a country drowning in the quagmire of its own long-standing and exacerbated identities, we were articulating a radical ideal in a vibrant way. Ye were protected from the emotions that ran high by the unity we felt as a group, bound through our matching t-shirts and our common convictions, and by those in the crowd who sometimes silently, sometimes loudly, proclaimed their support for our cause.

Today, I am proud to call myself a feminist.

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Bodies that matter

October 12, 2008

11/10/08, Tehran

In the village of Gazor Khan, at the foot of Alamut rock, I was beckoned over by two young girls, Miriam and Sara. Following the usual exchange of queries concerning origin, age and work, and after learning that I lived in Lebanon, the girls were eager to see some of my photographs. The two things they knew about Lebanon were Hizbullah and Nancy Ajram (Lebanese pop star), and it struck me as amusing that two such diverse images could come to represent Lebanon in their eyes… Lebanon: the land of the Islamic resistance and sex-kittens.

Initially, I was reluctant to show them the photos on my digital camera, mainly because most of them were of beaches and parties, which meant there was a lot of skin being bared. There was even a whole sequence of photos from a holiday with J’s family in Cyprus, which has three generations of his family lolling around pools drinking cocktails. But then I though, no; it’s alright if they see people enjoying themselves in ways that are socially acceptable outside the dogmatism of the Islamic Republic.

They were fascinated by the photos, intrigued by arms, legs, and other exposed body parts. They were particularly surprised when I told them who these people were: this lady with the long blond hair and short dress is my mother; those men in the swimming shorts are my husband, his father and his grandfather. Those adolescents are my husband and his brothers and sisters. They alternated between semi-embarrassed giggling and voicing their admiration of the white skin glistening in the sunlight.

‘Are there Christians in Lebanon?’, Miriam asked. Yes, I replied, quite a lot.

 

Then Sara expressed curiosity about the clothes people wear there, and asked if women had to wear the hijab. No, I said. ‘In other countries of the world’, she continued, ‘do you have to wear it?’ No, I said again. Actually, there are only a few countries where you must wear it: Iran, Saudi Arabia, some Gulf countries. I went on in my broken Farsi, explaining that in other Muslim countries, like Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, you don’t have to wear it. If you’re a Christian, you don’t have to. And if you’re a Muslim, you have a choice: ‘it is possible yes, it is possible no’.

The girls digested my comments slowly, and I thought about the implications that my words, my photographs, would have on them. I figured that their exposure to other ways of living and interacting shouldn’t be conceived of as irresponsible. Indeed, I have always found the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ to be patronizing, because it assumes that certain types of knowledge should be restricted certain people.

And even after I left them, I began to think that it was in fact a positive thing for them to be able to see the ways in which ordinary people, families, can show their bodies publicly and banally without them being either sexual or shameful. Seeing pasty, middle-aged, beer-bellied English people sat benignly in their swimmers sort of smashes the interpretation that exposing skin is inherently indecent or immoral. If anything, it shows that in some contexts, the body can be released from weighty moral judgments and allowed to just ‘be’.

The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that showing Sara and Miriam my photographs of women with exposed bodies and hair in an explicitly de-sexualised context was healthy, because it contradicted the sorts of exposed bodies that they had obviously already had access to: images of Lebanon’s pop princesses. Those images probably constitute their idea of what non-veiled women are, which is exactly the line that the strict religious authorities wish to push: non-veiled women in revealing clothing are shameful whores. Women of the noble Islamic Republic, show your dignity and pride by hiding your bodies and rejecting such vileness! But if the internet contained as many photographs of grannies on beach holidays; nudist beaches; naked, bearded Hindu ascetics; hairy-arm-pitted feminists (loud and proud!); and other images of bodies in non-sexualised contexts as it did of digitally enhanced pornographic vixens, then the image of the non-veiled Other as intrinsically immoral that is pushed by Iran’s clergy would crumble.

I realise that it would be dangerous to assume the role of ‘opener of people’s eyes and broadener of horizons’, because that would inevitably imply some sort of neocolonial agenda. I do not intend to go round showing 22-year-old girls from remote Iranian villages photographs that are potentially subversive because they challenge the dominant discourse of the religious authorities. I do, however, think that responsibly responding to the curiosity of adults regarding their cultural Others can be a positive exchange. I have learned so much from so many people during my three weeks here in Iran, about individual’s perceptions of their culture, government, food, bodies, facial hair… And as with all cultural encounters as dialogical experiences, I have also shared my opinions. I can only hope that doing so has encouraged individuals to continue to quench their curiosities by seeking insight from sources other than mainstream representations by media or government, by challenging whatever dominant paradigm exists in that context.

These are ideals which I hold myself to. I believe that they are sources of growth and inspiration… Not the only sources, because growth and inspiration spring from infinite and often unexpected locations. But somewhere, somewhere inside this constant grappling with Self and Other, there are some valuable inklings, some fleeting illuminations; and we just have to keep scratching into the depths of those exchanges to discover them.