Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Long Slumber has moved

to wordpress. Thanks for hosting blogspot.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Juan Cole, clearing up some common misconceptions about the Arab world.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A New Chapter in Lebanese History: From War to Reconciliation in 12 Days

Sunday night about half past five gunfire, a recently too familiar sound, erupted over Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. This time however it indicated renewal, as 18 months of political stalemate that culminated in the violent clashes of the last weeks, came to an end with the election of president Michel Suleyman. The clashes were the worst outbreak of violence since the countries bloody civil war. The last three weeks have presented the Lebanese people with an exceptional roller-coaster ride that lead the country from political deadlock, to war and finally to the election of a consensus president, whose position has been vacant since last November. Lebanese politicians have called the elections ‘ the turning of a page and beginning of a new chapter’. Yet if this chapter marks true diversion from the countries violent history has to be seen.

The 7th of May, also the 60th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel marked the beginning of the violent clashes. The day was originally marked out for major labor strikes, protesting the recent rise in food and gasoline prices. Fighting was sparked by a governmental call to dispose Hezbollah (the Party of God) of its internal communication system and lead an inquiry into Beirut Airport’s head of security, who has been perceived to be to close to the party. Hezbollah, an armed, Shia social movement aligned to Syrian and Iran had in 2006 emerged triumphant from its war with Israel. Since Hezbollah, in coalition with other Shia and Christian parties, has presented the opposition to the March 14 governmental coalition that is backed by the West.

Within hours Hezbollah responded to the governments challenge witch force, blocking both access to the port and closing the road to the countries only international airport. In response the army sealed the border with Syria, effectively locking Lebanon inn. RPG fire and violent clashes were reported from Beirut’s Western districts, home to many government officials. Hezbollah secured the, historically resonant Hamra district, a mixed neighborhood of Sunni, Shia Druze and Christians that is also home to many foreign journalists. Both Israelis and Americans had formerly invaded Hamra, a PLO stronghold during the Lebanese Civil War. By taking Hamra, Hezbollah had effectively put Saad Hariri, leader of the March 14, Al Mustaqbal Movement and Walid Jumblat, the Druze leader of the Progessive Socialist Party under house arrest. Armed militias took over the Al-Mustaqbal television station, a voice of the governmental coalition, and burned it to the ground.

When the next day broke, fighting had spread like oil slick all over the country. Violent clashes were being reported from the north, where Sunni fighters confronted Hezbollah, the southern region around Tyre and the mountainous Aley and Shouf areas. Aley, a most strategic position overlooking Beirut and connecting Hezbollah strongholds in the capital with its hinterland bastion of the Beqaa valley saw heavy fighting with Druze gunmen defending their villages. Although Hezbollah did not concentrate its full force on the area, the collective of Druze villages put up a fierce battle and despite calls of their leader Walid Jumblat to keep calm, eventually drove Hezbollah out.

Since the fighting began a pattern had developed under which, Hezbollah would take an area by force and then hand it over to the military. Until the last day of clashes, the military was bound by orders not to engage into direct combat, which would have pushed the clashes over the edge into an abyss of violence and retribution.

Finally on Tuesday the 13th an array of different circumstances led to the dying down of violence. The armies threat to engage with force, coupled with Hezbollah’s relative defeat in the mountains and the arrival of the Arab initiative all aided its ebbing. In a sense Hezbollah had achieved it’s objective, had flexed its military muscle and diverted the governmental gaze from the internal communication issue.

The Arab delegation headed by the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, got governmental and opposition leaders to agree to return to the dialogue table and invited them for this matter to Doha. The airport was reopened, and a day later the feuding parties where on their way. On the airport road politicians were greeted by an assemblage of citizens, outraged that their leaders had reverted to violence once again, who chanted: “If you don’t find a solution don’t even come back”.

After five days of negotiations the emir of Qatar, directly addressing this crowd of people, proclaimed: "Some of you took to the streets asking your leaders not to return to Lebanon without reaching an agreement ... I would like to tell you that your leaders have finally agreed and they will shortly be on their way back."

Essentially the agreement met some of Hezbollah’s key demands. It granted veto power to the opposition, a point of conflict that had spurred the political deadlock in the first place in December 2006 and approved reform to the electoral law that would carve up the country in new electoral districts. But most importantly it bound the parties to agree on a consensus candidate for the vacant presidency and emphasized that no side would use violence in the future.

The negotiations, quite deliberately, failed to address the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, the internal communication system or the airport security. A Guardian of the Cedars – a political party aligned to the government, statement read: “One must not be very optimistic, for there is a wide difference between a solution and a settlement.”

Yet interpreting the agreement as a defeat for the government coalition misses the point. Over the past weeks the single reason d’etre of the government was to avoid war. A full-blown civil war would have relinquished the government for good. It would have suffocated the, relative sovereignty of the democratic state, brought havoc on the country and would have made any future initiative to address Hezbollah’s weapons impossible. Within hours of the agreement the opposition dismantled their tent city, which had paralyzed Beirut’s central district in strike for over a year.

The Lebanese met the agreement with a mix of euphoria and skepticism. It was as if the whole country had held it’s breath for the past weeks and with the settlement was finally able to exhale. In a spectacle of renewal, Lebanese television showed hour-long dispatches from the presidential palace, where gardeners finally mowed the presidential lawn and maids dusted Greek statues, preparing the palace for the arrival of Lebanon’s new head of state. Occasionally pictures would change to Beirut’s Martyr’s square where 2000 white balloons were released in celebration. The pictures flickering over the television screen seemed even more surreal because just days before the same television stations showed dispatches of militias controlling large parts of West Beirut, crowds that descended on the dead bodies of their enemies and public torture of combatants. The Lebanese, not unaware of this contradiction, allowed themselves the celebration while being aware of the fragility of the situation.

Everybody seemed to agree that it will be a good summer. Lebanese stocks skyrocketed and the Daily Star proclaimed that 75.000 tourist were expected for this summer alone. Nobody however wanted to look further than three months ahead, as for that matter the Lebanese know their own history too well. Sadly the country has failed to learn its lessons and rather than departing from the vicious circle of intermittent violence that it teaches, it has developed powerful coping mechanisms against it.

As the recent developments have shown, violence never rests long enough to fully heal the deep wounds of the past in Lebanon’s social body. Wars are fought from and over history and new frontlines are drawn over the washed-out divisions of bygone days. At the beginning of the World War II a Lebanese schoolteacher wrote: “ I saw acute pain rise in the breasts of the generation that had lived through the catastrophe of the First War…. work stopped, and business dwindled as a wave of profound pessimism engulfed the country”. This pain and lethargy of war was again a major feature of the last weeks. It is a vicious mix of emotions that steals peoples future, suffocates their ambition and leaves them stranded in limbo. Having been caught in civil strive, characterized through war, violent clashes and political assassinations, since ever the country was created, these emotions have integrated into the Lebanese psyche.

It is most notable in the Lebanese ability to deal and to a degree ignore the violence around them. The July war of 2006 was full of stories of young Lebanese moving the hedonistic center of their capital to the surrounding mountains. There, they could slurp extra dry vodka martinis while watching the destruction of their country from a prime spot. This attitude was epitomized in a photo that won the 2006 World Press Photo Award. It showed a group of young, stylish and well tanned Lebanese driving through a completely destroyed neighborhood in their red convertible. Nobody, however who is not part of thread of history that has seemed countless military uniforms can ever understand this contrast or is able to judge it.

The struggle for Lebanon is not over but for now it is off the streets. Yet for the country to move from a series of extended cease-fires to lasting peace it has to confront its history and seek true reconciliation. Lebanese politicians have to stop down the road of narrow self-interest and sectarian paternalism. They have to make a real effort to stop foreign powers from meddling with their country, according to their own agendas.

Each new war puts the predicament of power in Lebanon into public debate; it opens up new arenas of conflict and accommodation and calls political institutions and practices into question. It was such a window of opportunity, opened through WWII that allowed Lebanon to gain its independence and it might be again such a window that allows Lebanon to finally escape the captivity of its own history.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Storm Had Entered the War

Military moved across the city like over a giant chessboard. The deep grumble of rocket prepelled grenades hitting far away, invisible targets kept a constant reminder of the state of affairs. From time to time flares lit up the night.

The grumble had faded for several hours. The city lay calm, calmer than ever imagined. People glued to their television screens had deserted the streets. Suddenly the stilness was shattered to pieces by the powerful roar. This time it was different. The roar was deeper, more powerful and absorbing, yet strangely familiar.

The intensity of the noise increased and the time between its occurences got proogressively shorter. Now, the roars’ hidden arm seemed to hit and smash its mark.

We got up, went into the living room and stared at the sea. A natural spectacle of rage and violence envolded in front of our eyes - a storm had entered the war. Lighting bolts, a thousand times brighter than its human counterparts, exploded through the sky and hit the gloomy surface of the waters. A roar of thunder, concluding the distructive power of its creator, sped through the air.

Rain started to fall. First, it approached in a quiet whisper. Then, it drummed like driving on a throusand galleon slaves, carpet-bombing the ground with its drops. The sound wrapped us in the deepest depts of the night’s cloack. We felt relief. The strom had stepped in to break the spell of war and replace it with an ore of nature’s might.

Friday, March 7, 2008

If Desperate and Fighting for Survival

' If desperate and fighting for survival....' is what many people would answer if you pose them a question that asks for 'extreme' human beahaviour. Such could be canibalism, killing of another human being, engaging in torture or just grabbing a rifle to fight.

In our cosy western homes we rarely experience such circumstance and the only group of poeople that can answer such questions decisively are our grandparents. So what if 'extremety' is the very everyday of whole populations, and that for decades?

In recent weeks, whenever I look beyond the southern borders of my current home country I feel like staring into a bottomless abyss. On the surface I can make out a puppet theater of strike and retaliation, of mourning and celebration. yet looking further into it incoprehension and darkness invade. The rules of the drama seem facile, when you strike and kill you jubilate when you are stuck and killed you grieve. Each action is then echoed regionally and globally, heard as long as replaced by the noise of a counter attack. Absurd question pose themselves. Would we fight more humane wars if we'd mourn our enemies death? Is there something like a humane war? And if, would such inspire greatness or be mere schizophrenia?

I know I repeat myself and don't make much sense, but so does the world around me.

...to be continued

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who is an Arab? In Answer to Rafi Feghali

An answer to this question very much depends on what frameworks of inquiry we apply. Semantically speaking, in the Arabic language the three letters ‘عرب refer primarily to a waterless, deserted and barren land. For thousands of years they stood more specifically for the landmass naturally bordered by the Sinai, the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Fertile Crescent. Following this the Arabs are then seen to be the nomadic people that have inhabited this land for millennia.

Traditionally these have been divided into three groups according to lineage. The first are the Perishing Arabs, like the Ad, Thamud, Emlaq, Jadis etc. of whose history is little known. The second are the Qhatanian Arabs who are descendants of Ya’rub bin Yashjub bin Qahtan. And thirdly the Adnanian Arabs who are seen as the son’s of Ishmael, son of Abraham. Some people have described the Qhatanian Arabs, who originating somewhere in Yemen as the ‘Pure Arabs’ and the Adnanian Arabs as ‘arabized’ people of another origin. Today, anybody who can claim to descent from any of these people is in genealogical terms an Arab.

It has to be noted that each connection of a people and a land, is no more than a snapshot in time, and at different times different peoples have claimed the very same territory. However an interesting question that arises from the general orthodoxy above is from what moment in time did Ya’rub bin Yashjub bin Qahtan call himself an Arab and what was he before that? Or from what point onwards were the Adnanian Arabs thought about as Arabs and what were indicators of their arabness?

Another classification of which genealogy forms one pillar is that of ethnicity. An ethnic group has been described to be biologically self-perpetuating, sharing cultural values and forms, makes up a field of interaction and communication and has a membership that identifies itself and is identified by others as constituting a category distinguishable from other categories of the same order. These definitions deserve greater consideration.

As much as we love to claim clear patrilines, biological coherency is difficult to claim for two reasons. Firstly, as shown above, Arabs are by definition not of one people. Secondly, if one considers the history of conquest of the area that the Arab people inhabit, it becomes clear that being Arab today, means to being a biological and cultural hybrid

Despite this great diversity, we do share some cultural commonalities. A most popularly invoked aspect of which is based on the third pillar of ethnicity, that of communication. Following this Arabs are seen to be those people who speak Arabic as their first language. This would however include many people that don’t consider themselves as Arabs, such as Copts and many Lebanese Maronite Christians, and exclude many second generation emigrants.

Be that as it may there are other cultural denominators that we share as a people, although these are not exclusive to us as Arabs. Hospitality as a value and custom is one, of such. Connected to this is food and drink. We do share some dishes throughout the Arab World, like Tabouhle and Houmous. Tea, or coffee drinking and smoking- or rather excuses to socialize and talk are other activities that can be observed from Baghdad to Nouakchott. To a degree an identity will always be a construct of differing and factors which overlap with other identities.If we look at the emergence of other regional identities in different parts of the globe we can see the relative construction of cultural coherence. For example when the European Union was created at the beginning of the 1990’s, the questioned was posed, “What does it mean to have a European identity?’ The discussions that followed generally focused on a common geography notion of ancient Greek political heritage, the conquest of the Romans and following this the spread of Christianity. These variables seem vague, and would allow the inclusion of some countries of the Levant and North Africa.

The fourth pillar of ethnicity seems somehow crucial and following it, Arabs are those people that define themselves as such and are also defined as such by others. Historically, especially Kurds, Persians and Amazigh have been known to cross ethnic boundaries and arabize, but technically everybody could do so.

Being an Arab is a non-essential identity. It exists beside the fact that one is of a certain family, tribe, city, region, country, religion or occupation. The point of religion has to be stressed as many western observers confuse the Arab with the Muslim world. Despite the great influence that Islam had on the Arab World, it has to be clear that an Arab can be a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Druze, Buddhist, Secular, Gnostic or whatever he or she likes to be. Thus to sum up, Arabs can be described, as a group of people that is loosely connected by culture, habits and customs, however doesn’t correspond to a particular religion, race or ethnicity.

Finally, but maybe most importantly, people who live in the area described as the Arab world face similar obstacles to the expansion of their full human potential. Although I’d like to refrain from uniting a region in the framing of problems, we have to recognize the common challenges that we face. Being an Arab today frequently also means to live under authoritarian rule, old or new forms of colonialism, distortion of history, endemic underdevelopment, lack of education, technological underdevelopment, intellectual and economic impoverishment, non-emancipation, informational isolation etc. More positively expressed it means that we have to join in the same battles, that we share the desire to take the future with our own hands and form from it what we wish.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Indicators for Human Dignity

Reading the news this morning, I am wondering what are meaningful parameters for human development. The most powerful country in the world, one that is supposed to fight for the equality and liberty of all human beings, is openly using methods that were employed by the Inquisition in 14th century Spain. The critical circumstances demanded Americas sidestepping of human dignity. Is dignity attached to each human being or does it come as a pool for the human species? Making one of us suffer to possibly save others reduces our lives to a mere calculation. Mathematics that, in the hands of a child that has not yet learned to count to three, have proven incredibly dangerous. Sadly, this infant's logic has become an inspiration for our constitutions.

When Saddam Hussein was hanged, as little sympathy as I had for the man, I wanted to cry. In the midst of killing and bloodshed, the most important official act and long hailed symbolic ‘new beginning’ of our country was built on the suffering of a human being. As we aspire to an angry child’s definition of human dignity, we create empty nursery rhymes in our constitutions. These keep us busy, but hinder our development. It is time to openly discuss what human dignity means to us in the Arab World and what we are prepared to do in order to protect it.