Assad Wake Up Your Time is Up

Lebanon, the Sectarianization of Politics, & Genderalizing the Arab Uprisings

The following interview with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Maya Mikdashi was conducted by Eugenio Dacrema for the Istituto per gli studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI)

Eugenio Dacrema (ED): A Few days ago a new session of the National Dialogue council started in Beirut, hosted by the president Souliman. The list of issue which will be discussed is officially very long, but obviously the main issues are related to the recent events occurred especially in Tripoli, but also in Beirut. Why is Syria so important for the political stability of Lebanon? Can you draw for us a picture of what is happening? 

Maya Mikdashi (MM): I think we are seeing several things happening. First we are seeing the reality that everybody has arms and they are not afraid to use them. We are also seeing that the Lebanese army is not confident enough to take a strong stance in the North for several reasons, one of which is that as a national institution has always been rather weak and has always been afraid of interfering with the Lebanese factions. The fear is that the army itself would begin to divide into different factions.

But definitely the longer that Syria continues to be in this violent uprising, Lebanon will become more destabilized, and every single group in Lebanon may get involved in what is happening in Syria.

The question about potential “winners” or “losers” (although these words are clearly insufficient) resulting from regime change in Syria must take into account the fact that the entire Lebanese political class has at one point or the other been allied to the Asad regime, either the son or the father. Beyond Hizbollah and a focus on assumed sectarian affinities to Syrian communities fuelling the conflict in Lebanon today, all political groups and political parties would lose either a past, current or potential political ally in the Asad regime. The Lebanese business class would lose its alliance with the Syrian business class; alliances across these different kinds of actors deserve more attention.

In the press we often read about Lebanese Sunni allied with the Syrian Sunnis against the Asad regime, and Shi‘a Lebanese allied to ‘Alawis in Syria who are allied to Asad regime.

This is an extremely disingenuous and insufficient reading of what is happening. I think it is much more of a political dispute that is increasingly becoming sectarian as the uprising in Syria itself becomes more sectarian and is packaged in a way such that “sect” is the political marker that matters the most. I think that we need to be critical of this packaging. It is almost as if Arabs are not allowed to have ideological, ethical, political, economic, or social stances on current (and even historical) events. We (Arabs) have sects, not politics.

This is a part of a larger phenomenon we see across the Middle East where politics are always represented in sectarian terms. This happens for many reasons, one of which is a proxy war against Iran that is being fought, in concert with American and Israeli interests, by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Also we cannot really underestimate the effects of the American occupation of Iraq and the sectarianization of that state. I think the effects of that (ongoing) occupation have yet to be understood fully in terms of the sectarianization of the discourse about politics in the Middle East. History will show that the United State’s restructuring of the Iraqi state along sectarian lines (modelled in part on Lebanon) was informed by colonial discourses of indirect rule. By contributing to the hardening and the ethnicization of these identities, the United States is directly implicated in the increasing sectarianism across the region.

When people talk about what is happening in Lebanon today, they just say for example the Sunnis and the Shi‘ites are fighting a “mirror battle” of the one in Syria. However, like I said, people in Lebanon have been allied to the Syrian regime for many reasons, economically, politically, and also in terms of sectarian affiliation or sectarian concern (such as Christian leaders in Lebanon expressing concern for Syrian Christians in a post-Asad era).

We also have to understand that Tripoli and the North of Lebanon are intimately connected to Syria, economically, historically, and culturally. Trade, familial, and social ties make this a very intimate relationship. It is almost to be expected that that border, which has always been porous (and not only in terms of arms or illegal smugglings, but also in terms of marriage, familial unifications, food and supply smuggling, that occur across that border), has became the main point of connection between Lebanon and the events in Syria.

ED: The first doubts are coming out when we see different Sunni factions divided about Asad.

MM: Right, that’s the thing. In Beirut, for example, the fights around the Arab university were actually between two Sunni factions, over a political debate, which was whether or not to support Hizbollah and to a lesser extent, the Asad regime in Syria. The other thing is that when we say “the Sunni community,” I do not think it is very obvious what we are talking about, right? One (albeit small) faction is geopolitically allied to Hizbollah, and the other isn’t. And obviously the one which is allied to Hizbollah is pro Syrian regime. In addition, many people from all sects support Hizbollah as a resistance group. The assumption that March 14 or anyone else “speaks for Sunnis” is itself sectarian, and to be honest, infantalizing. It’s a continuation of the idea that Arabs follow their patriarchal “strongmen” blindly, which itself is an Orientalist discourse that weaves together ideas about tribalism, sectarianism, and patriarchy.

But I want to make this very clear: the alliance between Hizbollah and the Syrian regime is not a sectarian alliance. It is a political alliance that centres around Hizbollah’s continued ability to militarily resist Israeli colonization and occupation. And when it comes to the resistance to Israel, this is really a political issue that transcends sectarian lines in both Lebanon and in Syria. A large portion of the Lebanese population, regardless of class, sect, age or gender agree on this cause-even if they do not agree with Hizbollah’s economic or political platforms. How could they not, given that Israel’s viscous and multiple occupations and invasions of Lebanon? How could they not, when over 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, a constant reminder of the nakba and its ongoing tragedies? After all, Lebanese and Lebanese-Palestinian resistance to Israel is much older than Hizbollah.

ED: In your post on Jadaliyya “2011, a memory from Lebanon,” you explain a very interesting thing: “Lebanese of different factions are pitted against each other and fear each other more than they fear any one ruler or regime. Each of these factions has a different narrative of the past, and thus they have different desires and possibilities of a future.” Explain to us this affirmation, is the sectarian state the dictator to topple in Lebanon?

MM: What I try to explain in this article, is why we are not going to see the same kind of uprising in Lebanon that we have seen in Egypt and Tunis, and than in Libya, Syria, Bahrain in all their different articulations.

The reason is that there is no centralized authoritarian leader in Lebanon, that is the basic answer, but there are other reasons for this as well. Lebanese history itself is a battleground and the effects these different histories have on public consciousness (or consciousnesses) in Lebanon must be thought about when discussing the political climate.

For example, people “remember” the reasons for the 1975-1990 civil war in different ways. There is no national narrative that is acceptable to everyone, and there is no public debate that hashes out these different perspectives. So, for example, some people use the narrative that the 1975-1990 war was a war of outsiders in Lebanon; they blame Palestinians, Syrians, Israelis, the US and the USSR. Others believe that this war that aimed to cripple Palestinian resistance. And of course there was an ideological debate between factions that supported a more conservative, Maronite dominated, free market oriented sort of government, or those who supported a more radical and reformist government in addition to power restructuring and redistribution. And then there was also the sectarian factor, in addition to the burdens of radically changing economic realities and stagnation. The point is that depending on who you are in Lebanon, what space you occupy, you will focus on a different narrative of that war, and as long as people focus on this different narratives and there is no national resolution, or even a debate on it, it is impossible to imagine one common political future. Mahmood Mamdani argues that a historical community is one that is oriented towards a common past, and a political community is one that is oriented towards a common future. Unfortunately, in Lebanon we cannot imagine a common future as long as these separate and contesting pasts continue to unfold into the present.

Another example is the 2006 war with Israel. It underlined a very different set of socio-political memories that were then lived in the present. In the 2006 war one million people were displaced from their homes by the Israeli war machine, and as they moved into other parts of Lebanon, they were welcomed by many of their co-citizens. The Lebanese state was revealed, again, to be a shell hollowed out by corruption and ineptitude, and civil society actors and independent citizens stepped in to fill the gap. But there is also another memory of similar refugee population during the civil war that completely changed the demographic of the rest of the country. So you started to see two different discourses one which was “we have been displaced, we are bearing the cost of this national struggle,” and these were the people from the South of Lebanon, while people from Beirut, for example, say “well, this is scary, because the last time that this happened during the civil war the demographics of the city changed irrevocably, in terms of sects but also in terms of classes.” People lost homes and property because refugees from South Lebanon needed somewhere to go, and the state was completely negligent and deficient. Thus the state’s inability and to some extent its refusal to deal with massive population displacement due to war has pitted Lebanese citizens against each other, rather than coming together and demanding that the state take care and protect the rights of all its citizens.

Now obviously people focus on this as a sectarian issue: A majority Shi‘ite population coming to areas that were not majority Shi`ite. But what was not discussed was that the massive population displacement in 2006 was one in a series of many displacements. The anxieties, emotions, and memories it brought up need to be understood as having been part of the political discourses proliferating among different Lebanese factions at that time. When thinking about politics, we tend to only focus on rational, conscious thought. But political emotions and memories also play a big role in the political choices and actions of people. Politics is not always a rational process.

ED: You wrote much about the phenomenon of “genderalization” in the Middle East. How is the gender issue treated in the Arab spring and its different contexts? Why, in your opinion, are very similar behaviours and traditions in many other parts of the world not seen in the same critical way when they do not come from a “Islamic environment”? 

MM: Genderalization in the Arab uprising – in the sense of how the discourse about gender has been generalized – I think can be exemplified in three ways, one being the continuation of this sort of common equation of gender with women and sexual minorities, as if men are not gendered. This can be because people understand gender as being about oppression, something that is only about how it affects you, rather than how it produces you and the way you interact with the world in different ways. Gender analysis is like class analysis, it is not something one can be outside of, rather it structures the possibilities of your life. Understanding gender as synonymous with women and LGBTQ peoples is like talking about class but only in relation to the working class or the one percent without taking into account the economic system in both its structural and informal aspects. That is what a gender analysis that only takes into account women and LGBTQ people is like. When we continue excluding men from our gender analysis we are furthering patriarchy by positing heterosexual men (or anyone who does not explicitly identify as non-heterosexual) as the normative and “empty centre” according to which everyone else is gendered.

The second point, when talking about the Arab uprisings, is an emphasis on what is going to happen to women and the LGBTQ people or sexual minorities in general. Of course, the concern is about what will happen to them as women or LGBTQ peoples, that is, as a separate and separable concern. This is usually directly linked to the fear of Islamism as it is coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt and perhaps Syria. Of course this an important concern, and women’s and LGBTQ rights are not a political bargaining chip (which in fact they are being used as today in the US presidential election). But they are also not a fad or a passing concern, and so we should be weary when there is a sudden worry about what may happen to women rights if Islamists come to power. A feminist is someone who struggles for gender justice no matter who is in power, whether it is a secular or an Islamist government. Secular states are just as good at engaging in gender oppression and discrimination as any religious government. Patriarchy is in fact something that unites both secular and religious powers because it is a hegemonic system, it is not something that is owned by one group or the other. Patriarchy is like capitalism: it is a hegemonic system, which is articulated in different ways. You can see this for example in Italy, right? The Vatican and the secular government are both patriarchal in different ways, and in fact patriarchy is something that brings them together, just as in Lebanon where patriarchy and neoliberalism are shared by both the March 8th coalition, and the March 14th coalition, even if they are officially political adversaries. They share a larger context of capitalist economic practices, in addition to patriarchal practices such as sexism and gender discrimination. I think patriarchy is something that has to be understood in this sense. It is not something that somebody has, and somebody does not have, it is a hegemonic discourse that brings different factions together in different ways.

I think that if we start to understand patriarchy like we understand capitalism then the mistake of understanding gender only in terms of women and/or sexual minorities would become exposed

The third point about how gender is spoken of when discussing the uprisings is the tendency of many people to judge the merits of the uprisings as linked to the progress on women and sexual minorities’ rights. Thus the legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it (always posited as the ungendered male) treats “their women” and “their gays.” This is really a continuation of understanding gender as something that only marks people who are not heterosexual men. And the localization of these concerns to the Middle East and to the Arab / Islamic world I think is an evidence of the fact that this concern has more to do with “Islamophobia” and “Arabophobia” than it has to do with feminism.

And it is very interesting how different parts of the world have been described in similar terms at different historical moments—always linked to the question of women’s rights. The Middle East, Africa, and South Asia (and increasingly, China) have been racialized around this question in similar ways. In the Arab world the causative factor linked to gender oppression is Islam and Arab “culture,” in Africa it is about tribalism, naturalized violence and irrationality, while in India we have discourses about gender oppression that contribute to racialization in different ways. Racialization is a process of explaining actions and practices such as sexism, sexual harassment or abuse as due to “natural” or “immutable” causes. “Culture” in this sense becomes causative for certain peoples and not others. So in Europe and in the United States sexism is explained as always an isolated incident that has nothing to do with “culture” or something immutably sexist in Christianity or in the white Euro-American male’s natural predilection towards violence. I recently saw a chart that aggregated the number of women killed in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends since September 11, 2011. The chart shows that more women have been killed in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends than Americans who were killed on September 11 in Iraq and in Afghanistan combined. And yet violence against women is not considered a public concern and is not understood as systematic. Instead, each of these deaths is explained as an isolated incident. But at some point, all of these isolated incidents come together and paint a picture of systemic violence and systemic normalization of this violence. What I am saying is not cultural relativism. It is a recognition that ifthere is a “war against women” being waged today, it is being waged internationally and in ways that are not always obviously discernible. We, as feminists, must struggle to understand the ways that patriarchy licenses gender injustice internationally and the ways it is wedded to racialized discourses in order to maintain and produce particular geopolitical and economic interests, alliances, and concerns.

When it comes to the Middle East, gender oppression is not understood in terms of isolated incidents. Instead, people attribute it to religion and Arab culture. Even self-proclaimed feminists (male and female) do so! I think in those moments we are seeing feminism being harnessed to Islamophobia. I think that if you look at the ways in which similar incidents are explained in radical different ways depending on the region or the country that they occur in, than you can start to see how the study of gender is being either misunderstood, or cynically used to promote other interests. After all, if the United States is so concerned about the rights of women in the Arab world where is the outrage over the egregious state of gender inequality in Saudi Arabia? Similarly, in Israel in the past several months there has been more media coverage on gender violence and gender discrimination among the ultra-orthodox in that country. And when you read about this in Israel, these episodes are described as practices of very small groups of people, who are on the “fringes” of Israeli society, but if the same things happen in Jordan, or in Syria, this must have something to do with Islam and the threat that Islam poses to women and LGBT minorities. When you read about similar incidents described in radically different ways depending on the place this incident occurs or depending on who the perpetrator is, you understand that this is not about a sustained struggle against patriarchy and the gender discriminations that it licenses, but rather it is operating as a vehicle for Arabophobia, Islamophobia, and the foreign policies of various nation states.

(c) Farah Mokhtareizadeh

2011, A Memory From Lebanon

by: Maya Mikdashi

When the revolutions began in March of 2011, I was envious. It is not easy to admit this. Back then, before the revolutions turned bloody, before Libya and Bahrain and Syria and before the continuation of a military state in Egypt, the possibilities seemed contagious. But even then, while in the fever of January, beneath a desire for revolution, I understood that I would not see a similarly broad based and successful uprising in Lebanon. Watching the swell of people in Tahrir Square on television, I was envious of the memories they would have of that moment. Where were you the night Mubarak was finally overthrown? What were you doing when Ben Ali finally boarded that plane? These “lightbulb memories,” translated into Lebanese, usually refer to political assassinations, invasions, and outbreaks of civil violence. Watching a million people celebrate in Cairo, I understood that we in Lebanon can never emulate the Tunisians or the Egyptians for two interlinked reasons: (1) the Lebanese state is not authoritarian or brutal; and (2) instead of coalescing against a common enemy, Lebanese of different factions are pitted against each other and fear each other more than they fear any one ruler or regime. Each of these factions has a different narrative of the past, and thus they have different desires and possibilities of a future. These different pasts, each inviting a different desire for the future, are old. But they are potent.

When the war began in 2006, I was swimming laps at a beach in North Lebanon. My phone was beeping incessantly as I exited the pool and walked towards my towel and towards my friend. The first text message I received read: “Israelis in Lebanon!” Minutes later, we were watching Israeli tanks rumble through South Lebanon on television, churning the ground as they moved centipede-like into the country. Lebanon was being invaded. A war had begun. We were not surprised, but for a few minutes, watching Israeli soldiers cross a border they had last fled in 2000, I felt I was sleepwalking, dreaming another Israel-Lebanon war. I called my father and asked him if we should return to Beirut or wait for a few hours in a beach club that suddenly felt like a compound to me. He said a sentence that I remember from my earliest memories: “This is nothing. There is nothing to be scared of. You will see.” My siblings and I describe my father as cold blooded and for us, it is a compliment. During the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War it seemed as if ice water ran through his veins as he shrugged off nearby violence to his three young children and their American mother. Two weeks into the 2006 war, our roles would be reversed. Hearing rumors that a bridge near my childhood West Beirut home would be bombed, I packed a bag for my parents and herded them into their car, promising to follow them soon to our rented summer house in a mountain overlooking the city. I think they knew I was lying, but they allowed themselves to believe that I would follow them. They left me on the road, waving at the windows of their passing car. I felt like an adult that day.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Memory is not linear. Instead, it folds against, moving through time and space gracefully, revealing the past, present and future to be the feedback loop that is. Less gracefully, memory also stumbles across the five senses. A vision of a memory is closer than its taste, smell, feel or sound, yet it takes all of these senses to be there, or here. Memory shares the impossibility of repetition, this sense of incompleteness, with the medium of film. I remember, three weeks into the war, walking through the ruins of Beirut’s Southern Suburbs (Dahieh) with a camera connected to a microphone connected to a friend. I can see myself now, standing with a camera, but perhaps, now as I write, I am actually remembering myself on camera, on a screen somewhere in New York City before an audience assembled for a “panel” on war. As we walked, then, through roads lined with the insides of fallen buildings, it was the smell that most effected us and those few that were around us. During one scene, I was standing on a pile of concrete entrails filming an interview with a man standing on the street. He waved my friend towards where I was standing and spoke of his neighbor who was (probably) rotting silently below my dusty puma sneakers. The smell, flesh and garbage and death and sewage and burning-the inescapable scent of the human and the nonhuman mixed together in their decomposition- was everywhere in Dahieh. When I think of the war, I think of that smell and can see myself fighting the urge to wretch in front of people looking for loved ones within the ruins of a life world. But I cannot smell that stink of war, here as I sit on my desk in Beirut and write these words five years later. Words can only point to what cannot be said, seen, heard, smelled, or touched. And so we write and we remember and we speak, knowing that we can never convey this presence of absence that is the past. Memory and film are both desires for recapture, and through them we try without hope to defeat the impossibility of being there ever again.

The Lebanese civil war ended when I was eleven years old. Back then, downtown Beirut was still a frightening place filled with rabid dogs who had, it was rumored, perhaps liked the taste of human flesh. The buildings and shops of Hamra street were still pockmarked with bullet holes, the city still stunk of garbage, the streets were still veined with cracks, and billboards did not stare down at you from every vantage point. West Beirut was much less crowded than it is today, and I remember being surprised by all these people who were suddenly coming back, many of them now fleeing to Lebanon from the war in a different country, Kuwait. I remember feeling disoriented as the landmarks of my childhood were replaced with shiny new restaurants, cafes, and advertisements. As Downtown Beirut was remodeled into a living postcard, it was difficult to talk about the structural violences that pervaded the post-war “reconstruction” of Lebanon. It was difficult to resist the seduction to not remember, just as it was difficult to resist the desire to fill a nation-wide scar with promises of a shiny new future that would come to us if we would just blame “outsiders” for the war and above all, remember to buy things, things, and more things. But writing this essay, I remember the first time I travelled with my friends (and without my parents) across what used to be the “Green Line” separating the warring “East” and “West” Beiruts in order to go to the cinema. I now live in an apartment on that Green Line, but now, instead of being shorthand for “Christian-Muslim” tension, my section of the green line is riven with Sunni-Shiite tension. I am skipping ahead of myself again. In 1991, it was the first time I had been to a cinema in Lebanon. As the car, filled with twelve-year-old girls and owned by an expatriate family that had returned after the war, entered Jounieh, I remember being silenced by how clean everything was. I was shorter then, with long blonde hair, and I can see myself now feeling like a stranger then, unrelated to the shops and the roads and the people around me. I was angry, seeing these shiny shops and restaurants and clean streets pass by my window. Even then, I knew what the price of Jounieh’s relatively peaceful existence had been for the past fifteen years. I was a foreigner there, and it was not until much later that the strength of this feeling abated and I knew that in 1991 “West Beirut” produced just as much of a child’s anxiety for others as “East Beirut” did for me. But as a child, I felt that the country was an interlocking and shifting terrain of places where I was safe and where I was not safe. These places mapped easily into where I felt I belonged and where I did not. In 1991, I did not belong in Jounieh.

Twenty years later, as the uprisings succeeded in Egypt and Tunisia, a group of Lebanese citizens came together under the slogan “For the Fall of the Sectarian Regime in Lebanon: Towards a Secular Regime.” Soon their enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over their Facebook page and onto the streets of Beirut. Thousands of people walked through the city demanding an overhaul of political sectarianism in Lebanon. Inspired by the broad based uprisings that were happening across the Arab world, Lebanese of all ages, genders, classes and regions came together to try to at least force a debate on the Lebanese political system. However, this movement had a fatal flaw; in order to preserve a broad coalition the group decided to ban any discussion of either the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) or the question of Hezbollah’s arms. With this decision, a group that was dedicated to highlighting and changing the political and economic injustices endemic to the system of political sectarianism censored debate on the two most salient political issues in Lebanon today. Any discussion of the STL or Hezbollah, it was said, might splinter the group into the polarized (and overtly sectarian) camps of March 14, headed by the Mustaqbal Party, and March 8, headed by Hezbollah. In addition to this crippling self censorship (and finally, the coalition did implode when established political parties infiltrated it and there was no common political mandate to meet this infiltration with), many of these activists ignored what is perhaps the biggest lesson of Lebanese history: the individual does not alone determine her identity. We cannot ignore the roles played by other people, institutions, and histories in the formation of who we are. We can not “choose” to unbecome these classes, genders, and sectarian identities that have been forged through law, life, and the liminal space between killer and victim that saturates the war scape of Lebanese history. At least, we cannot expect to succeed at this unbecoming, particularly if we keep trying to forget and suppress all that tears us apart in order to imagine a horizon that appears at the edges of a mirage where the only causal factor in life are one’s autonomous “choices.” We cannot change the political system in Lebanon if we refuse to explore and understand how the breakdown of that system is fought, lived, and remembered differently by Lebanese citizens.

When the 2006 war began, I was with someone who had helped me put the pieces of this country together. We had grown up on opposing sides of the “Green Line” in the 1980s (back when that line denoted a Christian-Muslim divide) and met in the United States when I was eighteen and she was nineteen. I would often visit her family in Lebanon and there, I came to feel at home. We traded stories and were for years each others’ memory keepers. Stories of being children in a war, of the joys and eventual complications of having missed so much of our grade school education (bad spelling for me, less than perfect grammar for her), and stories of what life was like back then “for me” and “for you” “on this side” and “over there.” We sutured our memories together, and I felt the country whole for the first time. Her words and wounds enfleshed people, places, hopes, and fears that I had never truly, and honestly, wanted to feel. Driving to my family home in Beirut after having watched Israeli tanks on a black and white television in a beach chalet, we thought about other friends who had grown up in South Lebanon or in Beirut as refugees of southern Lebanon. We talked about how different memories of the wars had formed their childhood, and how children living in South Lebanon then would have a wholly different vision of the past, and thus the future, than their counterparts in other areas of the country. I thought of her nephews, who lived in the north and who were surely watching this invasion from the comforts of their living room. I realized that I was happy that the war was not likely to reach where they lived. I did not want them anywhere near war, and I was thankful that they were not from the south. Again, it is not easy to admit this because even then, one hour after watching Israeli tanks on television, I felt stronger knowing the war would not come to them in “their area.” The war would be elsewhere.

In Beirut that night, when it was certain that the aerial bombardment of southern Beirut would come, I was anxious. I did not want to leave this balcony that had been destroyed in 1987, until I heard the first bomb and felt its vibrations rubbing against the windows that had been replaced in 1989. I stood by the railing, craning my neck past other buildings and southwards, until the first announcement of fire. I then walked down the hallway and stared at my mother sleeping until she woke up, and together we watched the rest of the bombardment on television. Throughout 2006, this pattern would be repeated. No matter what I was doing during the day, working in displaced centers or filming, at night I would watch the war taking place one kilometer away on television. When there was electricity, of course. After the lights went out we would sit, my friends and my siblings and I, weaving fragments of information gathered from different sources into a Frankenstein of possibilities. We would talk about how different this war was from those past, guess the type of war machinery that was the author of the latest sound, and we would talk about who had left, to a different country or to a different part of this country that was still offering all of the promises of a summer in Lebanon. Our cellular phones would beep with the arrival of text messages, their information shaking our phones with urgency. When I was younger my father used to carry with him a red transistor radio. It was always in his pocket with its antennae peeking out, and he would press it to his ear to hear reports of what was happening around us as we slept in hallways and make shift bomb shelters/parking garages. And this is also how memory works, not only through incompleteness but also through time travel. Thinking of what happened five years ago will take you back twenty years. Sometimes it will you bring you forward, to two years ago or to the “mini” civil war of 2008. Sometimes a memory will even lead you to guess the future. One memory leads to another, and in Lebanon, one memory of war leads you to yet another memory of war. This impossibility of disentangling the history of the Lebanese nation state from a history of violence is precisely what inspires many activists to try to change the system of political sectarianism. However, it is important to remember that wars are fought for many reasons, by different actors, and for a plurality of incommensurate interests and ideologies. Sectarianism is not always the engine of violence in Lebanon, but it is (along socio-economic class and gender) one of the conduits through which violence is articulated, understood, planned, and executed in Lebanon.

One night in 2006, I was sitting on my favorite chair on my balcony. I was watching, and listening, to the Israeli war machine. I was not afraid. I knew that I-living in a middle class West Beirut neighborhood, was not their target. Once again, I was reminded of the lack of control one has over both their identity and their safety. I knew that despite the fact that I was an agnostic supporter of Hezbollah in 2006, I was being “read” by the Israeli war machine, the international community, and even the Lebanese government as a “Sunni Beiruti.” Moreover, I knew that this metaphysically violent misrecognition was in fact keeping me safe from the direct violence of yet another war. I had never felt so implicated in the violence wrought upon others. And yet, despite the intent to fragment and target particular sections of Lebanese citizens, there was a countermovement led by what a political scientist would call “civil society.” People from all classes, regions, and socio-economic communities raised money, bought supplies, distributed food, blankets, diapers, baby formula and sanitary napkins. They worked through days and nights trying to provide for the quotidian needs for the quarter of the Lebanese population that had fled their homes and lived in crowded apartments, schools, community centers, and public gardens both in and outside of Beirut. But this solidarity was fleeting. Soon political arguments took root, different groups refused to work together, international aid groups came in with resources that we could only dream of, and finally, the state was shamed into acting. People fought about the war, its causes and its consequences. People worried about the strain these displaced people would have on them financially, morally, and spatially. Memories of past refugees fleeing the destruction of South Lebanon to Beirut and building lives there made people anxious in 2006. Would they go home? Would they leave “our city”? Was this another form of invasion, a poor horde that would change the city’s demography and blemish its image as an open, fun, and well dressed playground for the rich? Finally, when a cease fire was declared, in Beirut the war ended. But in South Lebanon, the war continues until today, with Israeli mines still killing and maiming people and separating people from their homes and their lands. In 1990, when the civil war ended, I remember being happy. It was later that I realized that as my life moved into what others told me was “normalcy” the war continued in South Lebanon until 2000. Peace had not come to the whole of Lebanon until the Israeli army withdrew from the occupation zone. And today, the 2006 war continues, as long as Israeli weapons of destruction lie in wait under the ground, concrete and grass. Sometimes they achieve their purpose and destroy. Most of the time they lie there, smirking in the sun as the world says that the war is over.

When you have been through several wars, it is no longer cause for much excitement. Only later is there time to be still, to be afraid, and to question the way that one’s autobiography is interlaced with a history of violence. You can find evidence of the interstitial nature of autobiography and violence in the unthought mechanics of a reflex. One night in Beirut, I was in a deep sleep when an Israeli plane dropped a four-ton bomb less than a kilometer away. My friend was awake, reading next to me in bed. I shot up, pushed her to the ground and shouted non-sensically, “go go go.” I pulled her down the hallways and into the apartment’s foyer, the scene of many nights spent as a child because my parents believed (or perhaps they wanted us to believe) that the lack of windows there made it safer than a bedroom or living room. After she was in that windowless room, I went back to my brother’s bedroom and with one hand lifted his queen sized mattress (I am not, by any account, a large woman) over my shoulder, dragged it to the foyer, lied down on it, and fell fast asleep. The next day I asked my war partner why my shoulder was sore, and she gave my sleepwalk a memory, a consciousness.

During a war, it seems impossible that life will ever go back to being normal, but there is also the bitter knowledge that it will and that it must. That life will go on, and all of this will one day be a memory that will always be failing to capture what happened, and how it felt, to be there, to be here. It seems impossible that you will again chat lazily with your neighborhood baker on a sunday morning, to feel a freedom of movement around the country, or to go out for food and laughter with friends and not feel the nagging of guilt. But somehow, beneath this subcutaneous layer of thought, you know that when wars end, routine returns to the living-that this will be the past one day. You also know that you are not alone in this, that in fact you live in a country full of people whose biography is also a history of war, of being sometimes victims and sometimes perpetrators, and of being afraid of both foreign states and Lebanese militiamen of all political persuasions. These stubborn pasts pose challenges to people working towards a common future. If the the project is to fashion a common future, then what do we do with the weight of all these different pasts, different historical injuries, and different memories? Do we shrug them off and hope than the next generation will somehow be immune to them? Do we dwell on the past and pick at our scabs until they bleed catharsis? These are questions that have not been publicly debated yet, and yet these are the debates that determine the field of possibility for an alternative Lebanon. And so from here, writing from my room in Beirut, the “Arab Spring” does not marshall images of revolution. Instead, in my room in Beirut, I wait, listen, and feel lethargic. It has been five years since I wrote some of these thoughts in a black notebook that I put in a drawer when the 2006 war officially ended. It has been a year of hope, of possibility, and of disappointment throughout the Arab world. But sitting at my desk in 2011 and trying to remember war and trying to separate one war from all the others that came before and after it, I think of the way you cannot smell death on film or in memory. I think of how these words can only gesture at what I cannot say. I think of how my memories, the archive of my life, are implicated in the violence wrought against others. I think of how the memories and archives of friends and lovers are implicated in violence wrought against me. I think of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, I listen to the news spilling over from Syria, and my body, that once felt envious, now feels heavy. Too tired to experience jealousy.