Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 August 2006
Issue No. 806
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hamid Dabashi

How do we sleep while Beirut is burning

The battlefront of Lebanon against Israel has an inroad that will generate a national liberation movement, akin to that in Palestine. Both, argues Hamid Dabashi, are more likely to export democracy back to Iran than to import an Islamic Republic into Lebanon and Palestine

How can we dance when our earth is turning
How do we sleep while our beds are burning
-- From the lyrics of Beds are Burning , the 1988 hit by Australian band Midnight Oil

Click to view caption
Hizbullah does not hide in the Dahiya. The Dahiya, the seething despair of its wounded pride of place, gave rise to Hizbullah. Hizbullah is the rising minaret from the courtyard of the Dahiya. You knock down that minaret, two more will rise again, 10 more in five more mosques.

ONE MONTH AGO my wife, Golbarg Bashi, and I left Beirut. We were in Beirut in part for work and in part for the sheer joy of being with our friends, colleagues and comrades. Golbarg had decided to expand her work on human rights and women's rights in Iran to include a wider range of issues and areas, and I to work out the details of the Arabic translation of my forthcoming edited volume on Palestinian cinema.

Over the years, I have developed a deep-rooted and inarticulate affection for Beirut. If I were to get too metaphysical about this affection, it would probably be because the ashes of my fallen friend, colleague, and comrade Edward Said are buried there, over which a couple of years ago I placed a fistful of Palestinian soil I had snatched from under the nose of its occupiers. If I were to get a bit meta- geographical about my affection for Beirut, it is probably because something in its cosmopolitan disposition, its recent despairs and its rising aspirations, is very much reminiscent of Iran of the 1970s.

In Beirut we stayed with our friends, the Traboulsis (Fawwaz and his wife Nawal), immersing ourselves in the joys of this unique city: having our mid- day man'usha at a bakery near the Traboulsis'; going to Palestinian refugee camps where Golbarg talked to human rights activists; having lunch with our other friends at our favourite spot, a seaside restaurant locally known as Rawda; taking a short nap right there and then, before going for a swim at a nearby beach; then going home, taking a quick shower and going for dinner with more of our Lebanese and Palestinian friends -- with Mai Masri, for example, the prominent Palestinian documentary filmmaker, her husband Jean Chamoun, the equally distinguished Lebanese filmmaker, and their children and friends one night, or having dinner at a restaurant by the sea with a leading Lebanese public intellectual, Samah Idriss, who is the editor-in-chief of Al-Adab, the longest continuously running literary and political journal of the Arab world, and his wife and colleague Professor Kirsten Scheid, who teaches anthropology at the American University in Beirut.

My other good Lebanese friend, Ahmad Dallal, professor and chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, was also in Beirut with his daughter Shezza, as was Professor Suzanne Elizabeth Kassab, an extraordinary intellectual historian and philosopher who had previously taught at Columbia University, where I teach. Beirut was like home to me, I had told Golbarg earlier that summer, homier even than New York, where we live.

The paramount mood of Beirut in late June 2006 was the hustle bustle of a thriving cosmopolis. Ours was a privileged perspective -- two foreigners familiar with the pulse of the neighbourhood, embraced and welcomed by a constellation of friends and acquaintances, comrades and colleagues. Every morning, over coffee and a colourful rainbow of Arabic, French, and English newspapers, we were discussing with Fawwaz, among other things, his forthcoming book on Lebanese history and the courses he was planning to teach next spring as a visiting professor at Columbia. With Nawal we were discussing her interest in having translated into Arabic a number of children's books published originally in Persian. With Mai Masri and Jean Chamoun we were discussing the film festival that Richard Pena and I were organising in New York to launch my edited volume on Palestinian cinema. With Samah Idriss and Kirsten Scheid we were discussing various issues regarding the journal Al-Adab, as well as the publication of the Arabic translation of my Palestinian cinema book.

There were too many things to do and too little time to do them. Samah took us to meet Anni Kanafani, one of the most prominent cultural activists and the widow of the legendary Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani -- murdered in 1972 by people who don't like Palestinian novelists, poets, and filmmakers.

Beirut was bustling with activities in late June 2006, with things to do, friends and colleagues to meet, current projects to work out, new projects to plan. No -- Beirut is (should I now say was -- the verb does not quite turn to conjugate in my angry and defiant mind) altogether too busy for a short visit, too many things to do in just 10 days.

No -- Beirut was (is and will always remain) absolutely beautiful -- including even its cultic curiosities. Huge posters of Rafik Al-Hariri, a monumental statue of Samir Qassir, the raised arm of Jubran Twayni, the close up of George Hawi -- all of them divisive characters, or decisive signs, some adoring them as national heroes and martyrs, others detesting them for their pro-American politics, many managing to ignore them altogether. Al-Hariri had rebuilt Beirut, his admirers said. He had impoverished the country, his detractors objected. To a foreign but caring ear, all these disagreements sounded positively promising. Public intellectuals doing what they do best, as did politicians, the revolutionaries, the activists, the journalists -- the stuff of which civic discourse is made.

Noam Chomsky had just been there, giving a series of talks in Beirut. When we left, Fawwaz gave me a CD of Chomsky's talks to send to a mutual friend in Boston. Beirut was thriving. Lebanon could have been a model of productive ideological conflicts, of civil discourse, progressive politics, foreign investments, domestic contestations, intellectual diversity, moral variations. Beirut was civil, civilising, cosmopolitan.

Beirut -- no -- Beirut was (will always be) full of life. For the first time in decades I thought there was hope for Lebanon. There was a fifty-five- (or something to that effect) star Mövenpick Hotel not too far from Rawda on the Corniche that was so spiffy that would not allow us to use its beach. But a stone throw from it there was a public beach that was as good and more than happy to welcome you for just about a dollar to rent a carrousel for as long as you wanted, all that plus a running faucet under which you could wash your sands off. There was (is, there must always be) a generosity of spirit, a catholicity of caring about Beirut -- a tolerance far superior to those of the French legislators, or their counterparts, the bearded monstrosities that rule over the Islamic Republic.

That evening, with Fawwaz and Nawal we went to Mai Masri and Jean Chamoun's warm, welcoming, and generous home for dinner -- all in the company of beautiful minds, joyous hearts, generous spirits, forgiving souls. "I have made you Mosakhan, Hamid," Mai said and pointed to a colourful dish. "Those are beautiful pieces of Mosakhan, Mai. We are having a launch of our Palestinian cinema book with a small film festival in New York, Mai. Hope you can come." "With pleasure, Hamid." Home is where people don't mispronounce your name.

No -- definitely Beirut was (yes it was) full of hope. Mai and Jean's youngest daughter Hana was so eager to tell me that she had acted in her father's new film In the Shadow of the City (2005) -- she rushed to a room and rushed back with a DVD in her hand, pointing to a fine print little HANA CHAMOUN written on the cover. "You are the second little Hana I know who is a great artist." Who was the other one she asked "Hana Makhmalbaf," I said.

The mood of Beirut was decidedly joyous and the joy was punctuated by our uplifting conversations with Abu Said -- the legendary Abu Said, who guided us through the back alleys and twisted miseries of Sabra and Shatila, helping Golbarg with her meetings with human rights organisations and activists -- as always kind and as always generous with his time and patience.

No -- Sabra and Shatila were not the only sites of misery and hope, poverty and struggle, in which we felt most at home. We also hanged out in the Dahiya (Beirut's southern suburbs), in Haret Hreyk -- "the Hizbullah stronghold" Wolf Blitzer, Thomas Friedman, and their disgraceful company call it. Khaled took us to the Dahiya, and I was reminded of the Cheraq Barq neighbourhood in Tehran, of Meydan-e Rah Ahan, of Darvazeh Qar, of Meydan-e Shush. Here was the market bursting with preoccupied shopkeepers and enthusiastic goods; here was the mosque -- earthly, full of shades and shadows, light and darkness, with a muazzen fluent in his tartil and articulate in his tajwid, eloquent in the praise of his Lord; here were the oversized pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei -- what were they doing here? "Don't take any pictures," Khaled said abruptly but quietly. "Nasrallah lives here."

The Dahiya is the closest thing I can remember to the bazaars in our hometown of Ahvaz in southern Iran, where Golbarg and I were both born, or in the poorer and more crowded neighbourhoods of Tehran, where shops, lives, street vendors, mosques, old cars, young men, veiled women, talkative shopkeepers, and the buzzing familiarity of a labyrinthine landscape all come together and inform you of a thriving urbanity.

Right at the heart of the Dahiya, we saw a sign at a door to an office saying that Syrian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and all other kinds of the wretched of the earth were available for hire (sale) -- for the Lebanese bourgeoisie and their Saudi, Khaliji, and other European and European look-alike neighbours to hire in order to attend to their chores. Right there and then we marked the visible presence of Sri Lankan maids in particular (some 50,000 of them some statistics suggests) -- when Golbarg and I whispered to ourselves that here in Lebanon there was an additional, unmarked, un-named, and entirely invisible camp made up of mostly Sri-Lankan (but also of many other nationalities) slaves, for which there is no global awareness or collective care. The world at least knows about the plight of the Palestinian refugees -- that it does nothing with that knowledge is an entirely different obscenity -- but Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis and Syrians and Moroccans and... these are all the nameless of the earth, abused labourers, temporary slaves, hired and fired at will, with no visible sign that they even exist.

No. Beirut was definitely beautiful, and decidedly joyous, albeit seething with pain, with abandoned hopes, hidden labour, illegal bodies suffering the indignity of an exposed and abused life -- all thriving along a bustling bourgeoisie, an intellectual cantankerousness that marked anything but a moral apathy. Golbarg and I would go for our regular nightly walk at the Corniche all the way from Rawda to the oversized monument to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, before we grabbed a cab and asked the driver to take us home to Fawwaz and Nawal. Life at the Corniche was full -- ordinary people, some veiled, some unveiled, some poor, some rich, some young, some old -- children running loose, nargilas bubbling at full blast, fresh corns hot and ready for sale, for almost nothing. Life in Beirut was full, folly, furious. Life was good.

No. Beirut was (yes was) beautiful, joyous, cantankerous, and tolerant even of two argumentative foreigners familiar with its fears, sharing its hopes, taking issues with one thing or another.

There was hope for Lebanon, when we were there -- genuine, palpable, grounded.

Beautiful was Beirut in June, and when we said good-bye to our Lebanese and Palestinian friends, Beirut was hopeful, and as we boarded our plane and flew out of Rafik Al-Hariri airport early in the morning of Sunday 2 July 2006, at about 4AM, Beirut was all in one piece.

HISTORY ALWAYS HAPPENS: behind your back -- when you are not looking.

We left parts of us, Golbarg and I, in Beirut that Sunday 2 July 2006 -- and now, all of that, parts of us Palestinian and parts of us Lebanese, all we saw and witnessed, all our friends, their ordinary lives, extraordinary courage, our very fresh memories of them, sounds of our greetings, echoes of our farewells, a camera full of pictures we now dare not even watch to remember -- "next time I come to Beirut Abu Said I want to sit down and write your story" -- all of that and much more is trapped -- trapped inside a killing field, a vicious, malicious, ungodly, ugly and brutal killing field.

A sadistic, savage and subhuman, torpedo was on its way to Beirut when we left it and we did not know it.

What has happened to our friends, how are they faring? E-mails are infrequent, phones do not always work. The night before we left Beirut I was so upset that Brazil lost to France that I left the galleys of my next book on Iranian cinema that I was proofreading at Fawwaz and Nawal's, right next to the sofa where I was sitting. I e-mailed Fawwaz as soon as we arrived in New York. The following day he DHL-ed my galleys to me. Three days into the savage siege of Lebanon, he sent me an e-mail in response to my worries, assured me they were all fine and then he asked -- "did you get the galleys?" What sort of tenacity is that? How can he ask me about my wretched galleys while the savages have unleashed the Armageddon on him and other Lebanese?

And what about Samah, Kirsten and their children? One week into the bombing, Samah sent me a gut-wrenching essay he had written on the situation in Lebanon as the editorial of the next issue of Al-Adab, asking me and his other friends to disseminate it. What about Mai, Chamoun, their children? How is Hana Chamoun doing -- did she take copies of her father's film with her when she ran for cover from the American-made Israeli bombs -- do these genocidal bombers ever go to the movies?

On a daily and hourly basis, Beirut is now the target of an unsurpassed savagery from the air, from the sea, from the land. They are pounding Beirut. Their ships, their fighter jets, their artilleries, their unparalleled barbarity, pounding Beirut like there is no tomorrow, burning it to ashes, murdering its fragile peace, shredding its imperceptible harmony to pieces, its gloriously cantankerous and divided thinkers, journalists, artists, writers, historians, poets, photographers, filmmakers.

"Hizbullah stronghold," the genocidal bombers and their mouthpiece in the United States and Europe call the Dahiya neighbourhood. "They warn the civilians to go away before they bomb them," Wolf Blitzer and his Company say. To go where, exactly? Where exactly were these people supposed to go? The architectural labyrinth that links ordinary people's lives, their marketplace of goods, hopes and aspirations, fears and trembling, places they hold sacred, the politics that sustains their dignity and pride, placed right next to the bakeries they grab a bite from, the shops at which they buy a toy for their kids, the political convictions they just shared with a greengrocer, the broken radio they just dropped for repair, the ablution they just performed to feel cleansed and worthy of presence in front of their Maker, so that they can stand erect and say their mid-day prayers -- they are all there, interwoven, connected, miasmatic.

How many years of vilification, how many generations of criminal racism, how many CNN programmes with Wolf Blitzer, how many New York Times editorials and Thomas Friedman columns, how many neocon creatures, how many Fox News obscenities, how many Salman Rushdie, Fouad Ajami, Fareed Zakaria, and Ibn Warraq native informers, it takes to turn an entire people -- living, breathing, hoping, struggling people -- into non- entities, as if they don't exist, they don't matter, they don't count. In the United States even animals have activists speaking on their behalf and demanding they be treated "humanely". But how about humans? What is this monstrous madness, this pro-Israeli propaganda machinery that has successfully reduced an entire world, billions of people, millions of victims, into subterranean creatures not even worthy of a single voice of decency in the bubonic madness of the US media?

Warn them to run away exactly where? Wolf Blitzer and other ghastly and shameless propagandists use the propaganda language that the Saudis and the Khalijis in Beirut, and above all the suburban mendacity of New Jersey and Connecticut understand best. "We give them warning." Say Alan Dershowitz and the Israeli Ministry of Deceit and Disinformation, "So they can flee." Flee to where exactly? To the suburbs of Tel Aviv?

Hizbullah does note hide in the Dahiya. The Dahiya, the seething despair of its wounded pride of place, gave rise to Hizbullah. Hizbullah is the rising minaret from the courtyard of the Dahiya. You knock down that minaret, two more will rise again, 10 more in five more mosques -- you cannot bomb misery to nullity. Injustice will demand and exact attention. The world is not the newsroom of CNN and Fox News. You can fool the whole world once, you can fool one president forever, but you cannot fool an entire world forever.

What Mearsheimer and Watt wrote about the ungodly power of the Israeli lobby in the United States is decades late in telling ordinary Americans what they already know. The world is not the editorial page of The New York Times, the single most nauseating propaganda paper on planet. A few days into this barbarity, on 17 July 2006, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) bought and paid for a full-page advertisement in The New York Times defending the savagery of Israel. What a useless and redundant advertisement. The entire Section A of The New York Times is an ad for Israel.

The "Israelis," as they call themselves, do as they wish -- and then they do some more. Instead of agreeing to a global call for ceasefire, for a stop to this carnage, the Americans are sending more arms to Israel. The killing machine needs more ammunition. On 22 July 2006, The New York Times proudly reported that the Bush administration was rushing a delivery of bombs to Israel, following a request from the Jewish state last week when it began its invasion of Lebanon. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has refused to stop the Israeli killing machine, describing the plight of Lebanon as part of the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" and said that Israel should ignore calls for a ceasefire. "This is a different Middle East. It's a new Middle East. It's hard. We're going through a very violent time," the US secretary of state said.

Who is this Condoleezza Rice? How could she possibly be the descendent of a black slave, and yet stand there and with such barefaced vulgarity say that it is too soon for her to intervene and stop the slaughter. Forget about the nobility of the heritage that African slaves have accumulated in this land, does she have any claim to common decency?

How are we to read this sequence of events, when out of Lebanon are escaping European and American nationals, and into Israel are fast delivered the most sophisticated American weapons to kill those who remain more effectively? What barefaced barbarity and racism is this? Instead of putting pressure on US and its colonial subsidy to stop the carnage, Europeans are taking their white-only enclaves out so those who remain can be murdered with more impunity. With the flight of the white folks out of Lebanon will also diminish the coverage of the international press, so these genocidal bombers can do their dirty deeds in the blind spot of history.

Just for a split second dare the elements and imagine what would have happened if the shoes were in the other foot -- if Lebanon was capable and doing to Israel what Israel is capable and now doing to Lebanon! Imagine if Lebanon had moved its navy, air force, and army, surrounded Israel, and started bombing the living daylight out of its inhabitants -- destroyed every bridge, bombed every motorway, and shelled every square inch of populated area in sight; then blew up Ben Gurion Airport runways and destroyed its terminals; then flew myriads of jetfighters over Tel Aviv and bombed it to kingdom come; then blockaded all its ports; bombarded its beaches and destroyed all its buildings; then went ahead and bombed every highway before ordering civilians to leave, and just as they started doing what they were told to do the Lebanese started shooting the Israelis and tearing them to pieces.

Just imagine the US and European outrage; imagine the moral outcry of Michael Ignatieff if these were Jewish children being slaughtered; imagine the legalese uproar of Alan Dershowitz; imagine the editorials of The New York Times, the headlines of The New York Sun, the graphics of The New York Post, the waving colours and background music of CNN and Fox News, the columns of Thomas Friedman; imagine the face of Wolf Blitzer, the words of Elie Wiesel, the ads that ADL would have purchased in newspapers, the messages Nathan Sharansky would have sent to President Bush. Imagine the number of times that Fouad Ajami were asked to explain to CBS audiences the deranged Arab mind. Imagine! Just imagine!

Meanwhile, the Oriental regiments of the US neocon artists continue to provide their servile services and expert knowledge about Hizbullah -- that they would not know their nostrils from a hole in the wall if they were dropped in the Dahiya was entirely besides the point. "Would Hizbullah use a sophisticated missile that can hit Haifa without permission from Iran?" the question was put to Abbas Milani, a newly-recruited neocon at Hoover Institution by himself, to which he himself responded: "I doubt it." Such ignorance of the Lebanese politics, of the place of Hizbullah within a larger frame of its polity, completely escapes the nauseating consensus that these comprador intellectuals are hired to generate and sustain. "Western governments had no concrete proof that Iran and Syria were behind Hizbullah's attack," said Margaret Beckett, the British foreign secretary.

Infinitely more important in what Hizbullah does or does not do is the internal dynamics of political alignments within Lebanon itself, rather than the wishes of the Islamic Republic -- even if that inanity had a unanimous voice and vision of what was best for its interest. Anyone who believes that Hizbullah acts and operates or chooses its course of action with a signal from Tehran or even Damascus is either astoundingly illiterate in the Lebanese internal politics or else is a deceitful charlatan, or both.

A band of useless expatriate Iranians are now swarming Washington DC hotel lobbies and the White House and the State Department offices, seeking a pathetic role and a lucrative salary for regime change in Iran, doing nothing but wasting our tax money, while registering their ignoble names in the annals of a maligned nation. History is now recording their shameful names and will deal with them in proper time -- Abbas Milani, Mohsen Sazegara, Amir Taheri, Azar Nafisi, Ramin Ahmadi, Roya Hakakian, and an ilk of reprehensible names next to them. The battlefront of Lebanon against the Israeli savagery has an inroad that will generate and sustain a national liberation movement, akin to the one in Palestine, and they will both export democracy and justice back to Iran, instead of importing a pathological Islamic Republic into Lebanon or Palestine.

Mark these words for posterity. This will come to pass. Israel will not reduce the cosmopolitan disposition of national liberation movements in Palestine and Lebanon into tribal affinities of its own image and likeness. The reverse will happen, and the national liberation movements that are now taking exemplary momentum in Palestine and Lebanon will change the entire region, the corrupt Arab regimes, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the mediaeval patrimonialism of Syria, and of course the Jewish state itself. Mark these words.

The current savagery of the genocidal bombers will not destroy Hamas in Palestine or Hizbullah in Lebanon. Precisely the opposite will happen. Both Hamas and Hizbullah becoming even more integral to the Palestinian and Lebanese national liberation movements, will one day succeed in helping establish a free, democratic, and cosmopolitan republic in their respective countries, and should the insidious designs of the neocons for Iraq fail and the Iraqis succeed in doing the same, three model nation-states -- Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq -- will emerge as the shining stars of a new horizon in Western Asia (what the Orientalists and colonialists call "the Middle East"). These democratic models will import their institutional democracies to Iran and Syria and the rest of the Arab and Islamic world will follow. The crowning achievement of this hope is in the day that Palestinians and Israelis will come together and unite, in one free and democratic state, neither Jewish, nor Islamic, nor Christian, nor divided along any tribal tenacity that pits brothers and sisters against each other.

These are not the false dreams of an anguished and angry mind. This is the promise of history to a world no neocon chicanery can fool, no propaganda machinery can deny.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 806 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Lebanon | Economy | Opinion | Culture | Features | Living | Sports | Cartoons | Encounter | Chronicles | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map