Across the Bay

Monday, March 21, 2005

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Charles Paul Freund, one of the most insightful writers on ME pop culture, put up a post on the Lebanese contestant who was forced to pull out from the Eurovision music contest because of the participation of an Israeli singer in the contest. Chuck had this excellent analysis:

The chances are that with nationalist feelings running very high, the majority of Lebanese would have welcomed such a showcasing of their country, especially in a European event. As for Israel, the opposition (the majority of the country is the opposition) appears to favor a truce on the Lebanese-Israeli border anyway.

Maybe this is a case where responsible people don't want to risk the slightest provocation; feelings are running high, there are disturbing reports of bombings, and rumors of more bombs, kidnappings, and other threats. Who knows what might lead to what? Besides, the sound of the Israeli contestant in song could have driven Hizbollah's Hassan Nasrallah mad. (Nasrallah's own Lebanese TV station, Al Manar, features no Israeli music, but makes up for that with reports that Jews are actively spreadings AIDS, etc.)

On the other hand, Tele-Liban is a state agency, the Lebanese state remains in the hands of Syrian lackeys, and this may be too dangerous a moment for such a state to do anything that might be mistaken for good sense, reasonableness, or tolerance.

Tolerance!? Apparently Chuck hasn't been reading the Angry Hair. They stole our bread, Chuck! Did you hear what I said! Our bread, damn it! Now you want us to hear them sing? So that they can steal our songs too? And you want us to be reasonable!? What's wrong with you?!

Seriously though, Chuck's framing of the issue in terms of the old Arab nationalist clich├ęs still used by the power-players in choking Lebanonist self-expression is right on the money. That, after all, is part of the current situation in Lebanon. The opposition has to play according to those rules. As it is, the opposition and the protesters are being labeled Israeli agents (cf. Jumblat being portrayed as a Jewish Rabbi in the Hizbullah rally, which Jumblat took as a death threat). In fact, Hariri was accused of this in the immediate run up to his death (which is why Jumblat understood the Rabbi picture as a threat). Nasrallah's recent attacks on the oppostion (in his interview on al-Manar), as well as Bashar's attack in his speech, were all in terms of cooperation with Israel. Hariri's TV station was recently targeted as a "Zionist outlet" in flyers distributed around Beirut.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the opposition has to toe the Arabist anti-Israel line (and some may believe it to an extent, I'm sure), there are growing voices of dissent. See for instance this parody by a Lebanese blogger, in response to the accusations against Hariri's Future TV.

Michael Young's recent profile of Walid Jumblat mentioned him reading about the Holocaust (not its denial!), and made a reference to his view on Israelis and the diversity of opinion and political views among them.

Furthermore, Ghassan Tueni's op-ed today was also telling. It was bizarre to read as I had raised some of its points with my friends yesterday. I told my friends how Nasrallah's focus on Israel and his attacking the opposition as Israel's lackeys was dangerous because it somehow made the suffering of the Shiites under Israel's occupation of south Lebanon the most central, or even the only valid, collective memory. All this of course is politicized, part of his bid to keep his party at the center of Lebanese consciousness. For him to do so, he needs to focus on Israel to the exclusion of everything else. This line is swallowed by many, as evident in the latter half of this WaPo piece:

At the Hezbollah-sponsored counter-demonstration earlier this month, a protester confided to me that his friends call the crowd who've been occupying Martyrs' Square "the resistance of Monot Street" -- referring to Beirut's upscale nightclub district. He had a point. The square has been full of idealists rather than realists. These bright-eyed protesters, with their guitars and flags, had never suffered Israeli occupation on their family property. The young student who told me he had no fear speaking out because the "world is watching" might not have felt that way if for years he'd been subjected to Israeli bombing in southern Lebanon -- with the most vocal American objections reserved for Hezbollah's retaliations.

Hook, line and sinker, as the saying goes!

Kanan Makiya, whose insights continue to impress me, not long ago warned against the abuse of victimhood by Iraq's Shiites, asking them to stay away from the "politics of victimhood."

Tueni's editorial came almost as a direct response to this. Tueni, attacking those who talked about "Syrian stability" in Lebanon, reminded his readers of Syria's random bombings of residential neighborhoods during the war, as well as its bombings of Palestinian camps. He also talked about how the walls of some rooms in the recently evacuated headquarters of the Syrian mukhabarat are still stained with blood. He related that a whip was left behind, with blood stains still on it. These were the torture rooms that intimidated the Lebanese.

It's important to keep this in mind, as the official Lebanese narrative, nurtured under Syria's occupation, has erased anything unrelated to Israel and threw the spotlight exclusively on Israel's role in the war, and the role of those who were allied with it, like the Phalangists (which by extension becomes the Maronites, and by extension, the Lebanese Christians). So the official Lebanese memory of the war (as well as that of the Third Worldist and Arabist journalists and writers in the West) highlights Sabra and Shatila, and Qana, but deletes Damour, Zahle, and Ashrafieh. And so on. The effect of this has been incredible imposed guilt on the Maronite community, and a self-righteous glorification of Hizbullah. Many Shiites today see Lebanon's history, and much more importantly, and tragically, see their Maronite compatriots through that distorted, propagandist lens. This was exemplified in a mock letter by the Lebanese blogger Mustapha.

This irresponsible politicized victimhood has delayed reconciliation between these two segments of Lebanese society. In contrast, the Druze and the Maronites were able to move closer toward reconciliation, while not forgetting what they had done to each other during the war. Similarly, Hariri's assassination has prompted a similar reconciliation through mourning between the Sunnis and the Maronites. It was perhaps most clear in Bahia's visit to the Christian neighborhood where the most recent car bomb exploded, where grief and the feeling of being fed-up prompted a very interesting and meaningul exchange between Bahia and some Christian women. Naharnet relayed Bahia's words:

"Let's all band together against whoever is trying to return us to civil warfare by such acts of violence," the Muslim Bahia Hariri told the predominantly Christian crowds at the scene of devastation in added evidence that Rafik Hariri's assassination has given birth to a genuine national unity. "We're not ever going to fight each other again."

Perhaps also the move to get LF leader Samir Geagea out of jail, signed by some Muslim MPs, falls in this category of reconciliation. It's definitely a political move, as Geagea commands the loyalty of a huge Maronite following, but the fact that he's reached out to, despite his history, is telling. Naharnet at least understood the move in terms of reconciliation, and indeed it's been proclaimed as such by those involved:

Geagea's release has long been an opposition precondition for finalizing a national reconciliation to remove the lingering aftermath of the 1975-1990 civil war.

There are other signs of course. The fact that the Lebanese Maronites have followed the Druze Walid Jumblat as a de facto national opposition leader, and proclaimed the Sunni Rafiq Hariri as a symbol of a post-war unity are all significant signs. This will also be the spark for a Sunni Lebanese narrative, the first of its kind. The fact that the Sunnis are choosing their compatriots over the Syrians signals a historic break and a new chapter in the Lebanese Sunni community. The fact that they still ask for good relations with Syria is irrelevant. So do the Maronites! The shift is undeniable.

This has left many Shiites feeling isolated. The voices of dissent in the Shiite community are present, as evident by letters to an-Nahar urging Nasrallah to join the Lebanese opposition, and to "place our Shiism under the Lebanese banner." Waddah Shrara has discussed it, and Jihad Zein has talked about it as well in terms of the "new majority," in reference to the emerging Sunni-Druze-Christian alliance, and where the Shiites stand in this new reality.

That the Shiites are nervous is normal. That they're looking toward Nasrallah to safeguard their rights is understandable. That explains their voicing mistrust at the opposition. That mistrust is of course expressed in terms of "Israel." That's the rhetoric they were fed for the last 30 years by their leadership. That's their latest memory, with the focus being on Hizbullah and the south in the era of Pax Syriana. But that's also what's personal to them, what they relate to. In a sense, part of the lack of communication between the Shiites and the rest of Lebanon is that the Shiites are focused on Israel, whereas the opposition is more concerned with Syria (another reason is that Hizbullah has maintained a closed canton, and maintained a self-righteous rhetoric that treats the local Lebanese scene with contempt). Syria and the Syrian era in Lebanon has focused on the Shiites through its focus on Hizbullah. It has also rewarded its loyal Shiite ally Nabih Berri by awarding his clients a vast number of administrative posts. It interfered in Hizbullah's favor when Hariri tried to defeat it in parliamentary elections in 96, and when Hariri tried to shut down the southern front after 2000. Syria also allowed Hizbullah to undermine Hariri's attempts at attracting investment and development, by keeping the destabilizing factor in the south. Ironically, however, because of that, the common Shiites didn't see a dime, or a hint of reconstruction and development in their areas, especially in the south, which needed to stay mobilized, and thus economically dead, for the sake of "the resistance." So it was rather necessary for Hizbullah to formally honor Hariri, to dispell any tensions (although the move, is also clearly political, coopting terminology --"liberation and reconstruction"-- from Bahia's speech, which Nasrallah, albeit nitpickingly, said he agreed with.)

Regardless, that's partially why most Shiites have rejected 1559, and insisted on the Taef accord. This led a Sunni MP to come out and stress that whatever change might happen, it will not affect the "constants" of the Taef. Which in turn led Nasrallah to stress that both "the letter and the spirit" of the Taef be respected. This was right after he visited the Sunni Mufti Qabbani, where he felt the need to assert that there is no division between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon! That's why Nasrallah and the Shiite leadership has been heavily cranking the Arabist discourse! (Remember what I said about the various uses of that discourse for local politics).

So all this long tangent was aimed at elaborating on Chuck's post, and at providing some local context for it!! Instead it may have confused you beyond words! So let me try to tie it in by saying that eventually, not now, the centrality of Israel in the narrative will continue to be weakened. It will be concomitant with the weakening of the centrality of Arab nationalism as a tool, and that is already taking place. In turn, that will lead to the strengthening of a more balanced Lebanese narrative, free of "the politics of victimhood."