Can You Swim?

This post is more related to Lebanese issues, and I apologize in advance if I come off as harsh, but these are things I’ve been wanting to say for a while.

They’re predicting apocalyptic events in ten days: Water levels are expected to rise by over 20 meters all over the planet, and unless we can find a way to protect ourselves, it will be the end of humanity as we know it. World leaders are working around the clock to come up with solutions to avoid annihilation to their people, and of course, cooperation is out of the question: Everyone is on their own boat. The American president made a speech in which he urged all Americans to join in building a giant wall all along the coasts to protect the country from flooding. Europe’s leaders are trying to re-imagine their cities as floating havens, with gondolas as new cars. Benjamin Netanyahu is planning on sending every Jewish person to another planet to start over elsewhere, and the Lebanese president.. (Well, yeah, it is a fictional story, and although having a president is apparently as likely as water levels rising 20 meters the world over, let’s say we do…) So the president holds a press conference. Lebanese people, proud of their high mountains, are hopeful of the country’s chances of surviving the disaster. Few people have such a percentage of their country this high above sea level, so for once, Lebanon seems to be quite lucky in its geographical dispositions. It sounds funny to say, but people in the country are actually optimistic, and the president speaks: “My fellow Lebanese, I come to you today with urgent news. Water levels are expected to rise in just ten days the world over, and it seems like much of humanity is going to be wiped out. Lebanon has a long history of hardship and struggle, and this disaster should not frighten us. We will adapt and learn how to endure, and so I declare that we now have exactly ten days… to learn to live under water.”


Nothing sums up what I perceive to be the Lebanese mentality par excellence as well as this joke. We learn to live with our problems, no matter how small, instead of dealing with them. And I think this applies across all fields and scales, whether it’s families dealing with bullying fathers, or people learning how to live without electricity, or tolerating zo3ran, or any of the many problems we live with. In a way, it’s pointless for me to say anything about all that’s happening in the country these days. We all know it well, and extremely articulate people from Tol3et Ri7etkom already said it all better than I ever could. It’s so difficult to live abroad at times like these, when I would want to be involved, to help, with my body and my voice, in the amazing struggle these young people are waging against oppressive, corrupt mafiosi. Again, all this is obvious and clear, although how the people will prevail in this fight is not.

The only thing I would like to add to this is what I perceive as a fundamental flaw in the way we, as Lebanese, have learned to behave, as a coping mechanism. We let go of things, we’re lazy when we should be precise, we laugh when we should be grave. How many young Lebanese do you know can stay serious when discussing our issues? I know it’s a defense mechanism, but at the end of the day, our country is split between the few who care too much and can’t do anything about it, and the many who have learned not to take anything seriously as a coping mechanism. And the way this comes off? We accept all kinds of problems, and always revert to blaming the government for all our shortcomings. We cannot keep learning to live with problems to praise our resilience, our adaptability. We need to start demanding action, solutions, and we need to be hopeful for our future, because we have everything we need to turn this around. But it all begins with people taking themselves seriously, and recognizing that this rampant corruption that plagues the country begins with every stupid “tayib ya man, 3isha” uttered on the streets. It’s a country of “bad students bullying the nerds” to keep quiet. It has become a culture of its own, and I can’t see how we can solve the problems we all suffer from without a serious attitude shift. We need to be serious, and we need to listen to each other. And it’s funny, but I can already hear all my friends laughing about it, “oh man, this guy. He’s just so intense. Khalas man, enta ssarlak ktir zamen mesh 3eyish hon, you’re too serious.”

Maybe I am. But then, all that’s left is to make sure we’ll all incredible swimmers, because the tide’s coming in, and it’s going to be pretty rough.

Here We Are

This past week has seen horrible events take place on camera for the whole world to see, as murderers fired into crowds and exploded bombs strapped to their chests in order to kill as many innocent bystanders as possible. Paris yet again descended into hell as determined criminals struck its festive streets, less than a year after the Charlie Hebdo horrors.

People from all corners of the globe, as had happened ten months ago, began expressing a level of compassion and outrage rarely seen, and debates on why this display is hypocritical and whether it is indeed racist raged on on the sidelines of the mourning processions.

Quite frankly, I find the idea of “feeling one’s feelings” extremely difficult. Indeed psychiatrists would probably also tell you that most people find it very difficult to sit across the table with their own emotions. Many among us project these feelings of pain, of sadness, and turn them into rage, anger, hate. Others repress these feelings, only to have them reappear, channelled. Some of us will become more aggressive, others more paranoid, cautious in our dealings with strangers… I don’t know, people are so different, and yet we’re mostly united in the fact that we find some of our emotions very difficult to cope with.

But many of us have had a generally healthy reaction, by dealing with our grief in any way we can, whether this means displaying the French flag on our Facebook profile photos, writing long posts describing our horror, our heartbreak in front of so much violence, or some even by writing songs to express these emotions.

It is a healthy way to deal with a concrete reality that you, as an individual physically far away from Paris (most likely, as people in the world are), and yet emotionally so close to it, are up against. Does it matter if you’re French? Does it matter if you know someone directly affected by the events? The fact that it happened over there partly means it could happen wherever you live (you being a prototypical Western person). You’ve probably visited Paris, and have French friends. But there’s more to it.

France is, for many in the world, the ultimate Universal. It’s nobody’s fault that it is so, it happened over the course of a couple of centuries, with literature, politics, and other fields choosing to represent France as a pinacle of cultural achievement, of refinement, and what have you. But let’s be absolutely clear: this is a complete construct. France, the amazing country that it is, is just another country on this earth, and its 66 million residents are only a water drop in the sea of people that populate this planet. They are just as important as the rest of us, and while many of us find what happened absolutely shocking, there are ramifications to the way we choose to express our outrage.

Many have written about why the specific wording some have chosen is racist, or even hypocritical. The main question I asked myself when many friends and colleagues called asking me if everyone I know in Paris is ok was: “Where were you guys 24 hours ago, when equally insane freaks attacked Beirut’s Shia neighborhoods with a savagery difficult to put into words?” It’s not their fault that they didn’t know, you might say. It’s true. As unimpressed as I was by people’s humanity that seemed to be born all of a sudden that Friday night, absent as it was for all the previous events that shook the world these past few months, I refuse to judge people for not feeling strongly about what happened in Beirut. It’s a complicated issue, and throwing it in everyone’s face at a time like this is crass, and counterproductive.

But here’s my point, and I really wish for people to consider it carefully. It’s difficult to feel empathy for people who live in a place you’ve never been, who are portrayed very poorly in the news, in movies… I have many acquaintances who have confessed to me, with impressive candor, that they simply can’t feel any sort of direct bond or empathy for people living in places like Baghdad, Beirut, or Damascus. It takes a lot of courage to admit it, but I think most people, if they take a few seconds to think about it, will realize that it is almost impossible to feel close to people you can’t picture, people you feel you share no common heritage with, no matter how false these claims are.

And here’s what I have to offer: the great opportunity of the week. It sounds harsh to say, that a positive opportunity can arise in the wake of such horror, but what if everyone took a second, and considered the great turmoil the attack on Paris has produced in you. Consider the horror, the sadness, the rage of people who have lost loved ones, and multiply this feeling by a thousand. That’s how people who live in Syria, in Beirut, in Baghdad, have felt over the past many years. It’s difficult to put yourself in these shoes, until someone straps them on you by force. Here you are, hurt and haggard. It’s the closest you’ve been to people living in the Middle East in a while. Let’s call it what it is: a great opportunity… for bonding.

So when the news tonight says that France, Russia, or the United States are bombing Raqqa heavily, at the end of the bulletin, take a minute, and imagine the horror of fighter jets bombing entire residential buildings to the ground, of living with these monsters who attacked Paris, with no way out, and no Facebook posts or flags in your honor. Just a brief mention at the end of the news, in the corner of the newspaper’s webpage. Many people will probably even be glad it happened to you. Can’t you just picture some people raising a glass, in a bar, while watching images of a plane taking off, adding something crass, like “let them burn in hell”?

You know how it feels, right now. We all do. Why doesn’t it affect us more than that? Is it just another sad truth about feelings? That they can easily overwhelm us, and when they do, we go numb? We shut down. And we go into denial.

If you want to spill ink and waste energy writing about things these next few days, why not try convincing others to examine those feelings? For everyone‘s sake.

Above All

th (2)Over the last several years, Lebanon has witnessed a return of many of its old leaders who had vanished after the civil war to their positions of power. Aoun came back from exile, Geagea was released from prison and began guiding the Lebanese Forces (now that’s a name) again, and others, who had remained quiet for a while, began raising their ugly voices as all these corrupt, chauvinistic men began manipulating the population, yet again.

Yet again, we have a crisis when the time comes to choose a Lebanese president. Every time, we experience a political vacuum when the “leaders” can’t decide on a single name, and the country kind of goes on hold. It’s not only a practical problem that we face in these situations: it’s a symbolic problem. It’s an image problem. One that we’re willing to tolerate, the way we tolerate so much else.

The way we tolerate these political leaders, actually. It’s so common, in Lebanon, to criticize them. We write songs about them, we say that they are corrupt,  that they abuse the population, that they cause most of our problems, we even make apps to mock them. But make no mistake: when someone says that, they mean the others. They probably think they support someone who’s above it all.

Someone who’s above us all. The leader, in Lebanon, is a man with a God complex. A man who thinks his role is to guide, to protect, to solve others’ problems. Well, this is the good interpretation. But hear this: the good interpretation isn’t even good enough. Why do you need someone like that to protect you? Why does someone like Farid El Khazen have to step in when a criminal murders a young man? Political leaders, zu3ama, are who they are because of the people. People voted for them, people support them, go to them regularly for all kinds of reasons, most of which have to do with corruption. You go to them when you need a longer arm that can grab something out of reach for you. Many of these situations are due to the inherent deficiencies in our government. Impossible hurdles find themselves between you and so many important things you need to do. These hurdles are the product of this culture, and people need to survive, so they do what they do to get over them. But it’s a vicious circle: the more you support these  men, the more legitimacy you invest in them, the more corrupt this government will be, the more dis-functional the system will be, the more violent disagreements will be, the more unstable your life will be, and the more you will need them.

The more “crises” we will have, like the presidential one. Because each and every single one of these macho power-hungry freaks wants to outdo all the others. They are a part of our social fabric and have always been, they are the residue of our feudal system. Turning this tide around will take decades. But I’m going to move past the fact that these leaders are a problem, a cancer in our society, I’m going to accept that one has to work them into any equation that addresses the near future of our country. But consider this.

If you care about Lebanon, if you care about politics, if you care enough to invest your energy into this, if you attend political rallies, if you like to voice your opinion about these things: you can’t support most of these leaders. I don’t care how good Geagea’s ideas are, or how much you agree with Aoun’s party’s approaches, or Frangieh’s, or the Gemayels… You have to consider one thing: each and every one of these guys has blood on his hands. They’ve all participated in the civil war. For me, for that simple fact and that fact alone: they’re all illegitimate.

When you talk about Geagea’s political ideas to someone who disagrees with them, they don’t necessarily disagree with the ideasDo you know how many people Geagea’s militias have killed? Or Aoun’s army? Or any of these people? Every single person in Lebanon knows someone who was killed in the war, because of the decisions made by these same leaders.

It doesn’t matter how good their ideas are. They are illegitimate. You can’t build a country, you can’t build a democratic political system, you can’t even build a dialogue when you put on the table the name of someone who has directly killed someone else’s children, brothers, sisters, parents, friends! Forget the fact that we haven’t judged these people for what they did. They’re a shameful part of our past. We need to deal with it, and put it away. We can’t allow them back on the platform. We can’t let them take the reigns again.

We need new people. We need young, men and women, who can present new ideas, and who can show a clean record for themselves, who have never killed anyone, or who have never spoken poorly about any other human being based on their religion, their gender, their sexual orientation, or whose za3im’s ego they flatter.

We need young leaders who respect other humans, who respect all Lebanese people, and we need to stand behind them, behind their ideas, and honestly… honestly hope they don’t get assassinated.

And Then Nothing Happened

I’ve lately been reading a book by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek called Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. It’s a good book, in which Žižek sums up his immediate reactions to the American invasion of Iraq in six short essays of sort, followed by longer appendices and reflexions. I’m a partisan of many of Žižek’s ideas, and am familiar with his books, but also with his interviews and conferences: he’s a very interesting, thought-provoking – and entertaining – speaker. Here is a video for those who do not know him and who would like a short exposure to his particular manner of his speaking (it’s also a good example of how his insightful observations can be simultaneously brilliant and funny).


The Book

Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle was published in 2004, shortly after the American invasion, and was therefore still very “fresh” in its analysis, and, in a way, in its relevance. I found it interesting to read for the added benefit of hindsight. I was curious as to how he saw the situation unfolding in the long run, and was left impressed by his predictions. I’m going to mention a few key moments for me in the book, but the main reason I’m mentioning it here at all has nothing to do with Iraq, as you shall soon see.

Žižek explains the title of the book as a reference to the kettle found in a joke evoked by Freud, “to illustrate the strange logic of dreams: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments, of course, confirms per negationem what it endeavours to deny – that I returned a broken kettle to you.”

Žižek makes the parallel between this line of reasoning and the one presented by the American government when it claimed to invade Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. Many Lebanese readers, for example, will feel comfortable with Žižek’s analysis of the situation, and his criticisms of the war: his line of thought is one frequently heard in Beirut cafés and on the news. A particular moment that struck me was when he spoke of the long-term implications of the American invasion:

“The danger, following the logic of a self-fulfilling prophecy, is that this very American intervention will contribute to the emergence of what America fears most: a large, united, anti-American Muslim front. This is the first case of a direct American occupation of a large and key Arab country – how could it not generate universal hatred in reaction? […] What might indeed emerge as the result of the US occupation is precisely a truly fundamentalist Muslim anti-American movement, directly linked to such movements in other Arab countries or countries with a Muslim presence – in other words, a Muslim ‘International’.” (p. 18-19)

Here, Žižek is essentially describing ISIS. He continues with an interesting observation regarding American dominance in world order, describing it as The Nation-State Empire. It’s an interesting way to sum up America’s behavior: “The problem with today’s USA is not that it is a new global Empire, but that it is not: in other words, that, while pretending to be, it continues to act as a nation-state, ruthlessly pursuing its own interests.”

On Conspiracy Theories

I’ve always been a fan of hearing Žižek speak about the Left, about politics – and about movies, – but reading this particular book comforted me, in a way: it’s not because he was speaking of a geographical area close to home – he is not, in fact, the book mostly talks about implications of the war on the rest of the world. What comforted me was the similarity between how he described the situation and how it is sometimes described in Lebanon. One particular moment stands out: “I cannot resist a slightly paranoid speculation: what if the people around Bush know all this, what if this ‘collateral damage’ is the true aim of the entire operation? What if the true target of the ‘war on terror’ is not only a global geopolitical rearrangement in the Middle East and beyond, but also American society itself (namely, the repression of whatever remains of its emancipatory potential)?”

This echoes many conspiracy-theory-sounding explanations frequently heard in Lebanon and elsewhere, about America’s plans of re-organizing the entire region; the Kissinger plan; about America’s involvement in creating ISIS; and many, much more horrifying stories. I am often really annoyed by the propensity for such fantasy in the common Lebanese. In Lebanon, people watch “predictions” on New Year’s Eve, made by buffoons who take themselves much too seriously, “reading” the future. Let’s be direct: either you think these people are actually having visions, in which case you need to wake up, and get your sanity checked; or you think these people are analysts of sorts, who choose to use their skills and understanding of society to “predict” what will happen, like a Lotto – in which case they should be held accountable for their predictions. They would be much more useful to people by discussing the reasons for their predictions, encouraging people to think and understand the situation, rather than pretending like their speculations came to them from above.

Why people care for these things will always remain a bit of a mystery for me; but it must have something to do with people’s inclination for idiotically repeating conspiracy theories. It’s as though we have such a difficult position in History and in our everyday life that the only way we can console ourselves for it is by making up insane explanations that imply that the horror we live through is someone else’s doing. That it all makes sense. It often does, but let me clearly state my own opinion: most of the time, what happens to us is our own fault.

We get – close to exactly – what we deserve.

Still, on the general subject of conspiracy theories, I think that it’s a genre actively developed and maintained by people in power in order to create a new category in people’s minds. A pavlovian-reflex of sorts. Whenever someone ventures to think outside the box (and this mostly happens in the West), they are quickly dismissed as crazy and as conspiracy-theorists. I’m not saying those people (real crazies) do not exist, but I am saying that their number is far smaller than the number of people who get accused of telling these stories.

In Lebanon, we have the reverse problem. Way too many people tell such stories, to the point that you don’t even know what’s true and what isn’t. You find yourself trapped between being an idiot and being naive, and you’re not sure what to believe anymore. In that sense, reading Žižek’s above-mentioned quote comforted me, because I thoroughly trust his intelligence, his thoroughness, his integrity – and his sanity.

But there was something else, and that’s the reason I’m writing this entire post.

And Nothing Happened

The Lebanese francophone newspaper L’Orient-le-Jour frequently publishes stories that bear “positive news”. As they describe the purpose of this section: in a context of corruption, infrastructural problems, political problems, and so on, the editors strive to regularly find positive stories to offer their readership, as a touching effort to balance things out. These stories generally range from inspirational personal stories to ambitious projects undertaken somewhere in the country, and more.

In a personal attempt to do the same, I would like to share the following story that I have found in Žižek’s book:

“If there is an ethical hero of recent times in ex-Yugoslavia, it is Ika Saric, a modest judge in Croatia who – without any clear public support, and despite threats to her own life – condemned General Mirko Norac and his colleagues to twelve years in prison for crimes committed in 1992 against the Serb civilian population. Even the leftist government, afraid of the threat of rightist nationalist demonstrations, refused to stand firmly behind the trial against Norac. However, when the sentence was proclaimed, during a feverish phase characterized by threats from the nationalist Right of large-scale public disorder to topple the government, nothing happened: the demonstrations were much smaller than expected, and Croatia ‘rediscovered’ itself as a state under the rule of law. It was especially important that Norac was not delivered to The Hague, but condemned in Croatia itself – thus Croatia proved that it does not need international tutelage. The true dimension of the act proper consisted in the shift from the impossible to the possible: before the sentence, the nationalist Right, with its veteran organizations, was perceived as a powerful force not to be provoked, and the direct harsh sentence was perceived by the liberal Left as something which ‘we all want, but, unfortunately, cannot afford at this difficult moment, since chaos would ensue’.”

I don’t believe I need to comment on this and spell things out, as the parallels between this story and, for example, the Lebanese context are apparent. What if we just need to hope more? What if we just have to try, sometimes, and take a leap of faith? What if we stopped listening to the people who threaten all of us? What if we stopped giving in?

Because the majority of us are non-violent. The majority of us don’t care. We just want to live our lives, work, go to the beach, eat, dance… But we all constantly hold our breaths, and keep quiet in the face of threats. In fact, many of us actively defend the status quo. What if we took that leap of faith, as Croatia did? What if we started trying to do the right thing, and hope for the best? Hope that things work out?
What if it could have also worked out for us, but we simply never really tried? What it it was all really our fault, that so far, nothing has happened?…

It’s All In The Name

A couple of years ago, when I lived in Massachusetts, I shared a car ride from Montreal to Boston with a guy who did the drive almost every week. We headed south on snowy roads, and began chatting about the usual vague and generic topics. “Montreal or New York bagels? How do you like living in Boston? Do you prefer Montreal?” He went back home every weekend to see his girlfriend. “Oh, Montreal isn’t home? he asked.” No. “Wait, where is home? Ah… Lebanon.”

This made approaching the border fun, with him teasing me about the questions they might ask me. “Sir, do you know any terrorists? he asked, with an artificial low-sounding American-officer-of-the-law-voice. You must get a lot of shit at airports.” I always loved those comments. “Wait, you’re not a terrorist, are you? haha.” No. Haha. I suck at fake-laughing. “You must hate the Islamophobic climate nowadays, eh? Ah, you’re not a Muslim. What are you? What do you mean, nothing? Isn’t everyone in Lebanon something?” We all need labels. A name for what we are. At least he knew more about it than many who had questioned me before him. “You were baptized? So you’re a Christian, then.” Well, if that’s how that works, then… yes, I guess. “But still, it’s not easy, I imagine?” What? “Being from Lebanon.” Being from Lebanon is not so bad. It’s telling people about it that is.

I did end up having a genuine laugh when the border-patrol person questioned him a lot longer than me. While he had to talk about his job, what he’s bringing into the country, how long he was gone, and other trivial questions, “So, you study at Boston University?” is the only question I had to answer. We continued on our way, driving through the wintery-white green-mountains of Vermont (Yes, it’s in the name), onto New Hampshire, where the highway happened to skirt a town called… Lebanon.

“Did you know that people from this town prefer to pronounce its name Leba-nen, rather than Leba-none?” No. Why do they do that? “So they can distance themselves from the country. They don’t want to be too associated with it.” Well, then why don’t they change their name? was my immediate reaction.

I later researched it, and discovered that it was named after Lebanon, Connecticut, which was itself given the Biblical name because of the height of the land, and because of a large Cedar forest. It was not named by the local Mohegan tribe that used to live there, as you will have guessed, but by the white settlers who purchased the land from them in the early days of the colonizing saga of North America: a tale far-from-devoid of war and massive killing of people, and sadly not too different from more familiar colonizing tales of the 21st century (more familiar to some, at least).

But back to Lebanon, NH: do they not realize that in British English, Leba-nen is how the country’s name is pronounced? (Leba-nen is my inexact approximation of the British pronunciation). I mean, Lebanon has produced a culinary tradition that the entire world admires. It has produced music, art, literature, all of which speak for themselves.

These people are distancing themselves from us? Who ever heard of Lebanon, New Hampshire? Even a town whose main claim to fame is being near the junction of Interstates 89 and 91 gets to snub us? This bothered me a lot, at the time. But as I thought about it, I realized it’s really all in the name, and ours is always in the news. Fox News, it’s true, but they still call it the news here. You want to be mentioned on the Food Channel, or in fun tourism documentaries, on sports channels, even comedy channels… just not on American news channels. People read your name too many times, and now they only think bad things.

I guess being unheard-of is better than being poorly-heard-of.

It got me thinking about names, and how loaded they are. So much is in a name that we don’t mention. Things we don’t even notice, things we forget, often on purpose. In the West, people name everything. The smallest ponds have names, every alley, even park benches sometimes have names. In Lebanon, if all streets have names that we wrote down somewhere, who knows them? I don’t know the names of most of Beirut’s streets where I spend my time. I’ll leave it to someone else to ponder why we avoid the practice of naming, and what it says about us, though I sometimes think it would be more useful to be explicit and precise…


Anyway, I remembered all of this earlier today when I read this article on BBC, which talks about a situation they’re having in the city of Frisco, Texas. A new high school is opening soon, and it’s going to be named after the small farming town that used to exist where the high school is being built: Lebanon High School. You might have predicted it, and it’s true: many people in town are complaining. As one resident put it, “for a high school name, it doesn’t fit this community.” Another resident added that although she appreciated the history of the name in the community (the small village of Lebanon had a long history, probably going back.. a hundred years, or who knows, maybe two, I didn’t research it) it (the name) always troubled her. “The present-tense name of a country that was in the news all the time with reference of war and battleground was always what was on my mind when I would say the name Lebanon,” a local resident told the school board.

Who can blame her? The name is always associated with bloodshed and violence today. Don’t misunderstand her: Lebanon-the-country, not the other Lebanons. The history of the small village’s name is appreciated, even though it is indirectly linked with a history of colonization, of massive murder of hundreds of thousands of native Americans, with the slavery of millions of black people for centuries… No, no, you misunderstand. All of this doesn’t matter. It’s the name, Lebanon, that disturbs. I mean… Could it just be racism? – You mean, against who? The Lebanese? Against Arabs? What do you call that kind of racism? You see, it doesn’t have a distinct name, the way anti-semitism does (although Arabs are also Semites, for God’s sake). It’s lumped with all other kinds of racisms. Even the terrifying ones, like the kind against African-Americans, who have suffered unbelievable amounts of prejudice and discrimination for centuries, and still do, even in modern-day America.

All that to say that a name is something that comes with a baggage, with images and ideas associated with it, images that we need to work on improving, not only because everyone else in the world does it with their names, but also because many in the world make sure ours is seen as negatively as it is. People in Lebanon are all about conspiracy theories, and sadly always have been. That’s also a subject for another post, but in this case, it’s not far-fetched to say that the PR campaigns from certain other countries actively work as positively on their images as they do negatively on ours. Being conscious about this would at least help us not help them

Israelis make movies like the one named Lebanon, about their soldiers’ experiences in the 1982 war. Bands call themselves Beirut while having nothing to do with the city. Towns called Lebanon shun us. Lebanese restaurants in the US often call themselves Mediterranean, because otherwise they would lose too many clients. Now, other restaurants call themselves Mediterranean too, and sell Lebanese-style cuisine, even though they’re not Lebanese at all. It works, we’re all hiding behind signs, pretending.

Who cares what something actually isIt’s all in the name.

p.s.- This may come off as a joke, but the BBC article actually closed with the following quote from a resident of Frisco: “All we’re asking for is a voice to be heard and have an open mind.” I think it’s about time we start demanding the same.

Symptoms: Part II

Here are some thoughts that might come off as harsh, especially in the current context. Please forgive me if you are insulted.

I think the murder of Yves Nawfal is really just a symptom of this ongoing disease, which most of us are responsible for perpetuating, not just the criminals who committed the crime. When confronted with a disease, or a problem, there’s an approach known as a palliative treatment: it’s a treatment in which you relieve pain without dealing with the underlying cause. You deal with the symptoms, but not with the disease. In the case of the sad story of what happened to Yves, part of the disease is our judiciary system, and the fact that some people think they are above the law. But I would say that this isn’t the whole issue.

People are often biased. One could even say hypocrites, although that’s harsh. When tragedies like these occur, most of us are outraged by what happened and the events that follow because we knew the person in question, or because he came from a good family. Lebanon has a huge class problem, don’t kid yourself, and the community Yves comes from is rich and powerful. That’s one of the reasons we’re hearing so much about him.

Still, I’m glad we are. And I’m glad a sit-in in front of the 2asr el 3adel is being organized. I wish I were in Beirut so I could attend and join my voice to the many that will be screaming for justice. But sadly, I also think that this won’t fix the problem. It might fix this particular situation, but nothing will change if we don’t start thinking differently about what’s happening in our country, if we don’t tackle much more complicated issues than this one. No one can escape the law, no one can murder someone else and go unpunished… I agree. Making sure justice is served in this case is what the sit-in and the social media campaign will achieve. But what about the underlying problems? But what about the fact that some of us carry guns around? What about the male culture that makes it so that so many times when you go to a club in Lebanon, you leave because a fight broke out? What about the attitude of men in our country?

This time, a Christian shot and killed a Christian, so we’re all outraged by the criminality of it. Thank God they’re both Christians, in a way, so no one can hide behind other excuses. But face it: this culture of violence, of accepting male machismo, of condoning acts of brutality on a daily basis, are the real problem that plagues our society. People like Charbel Khalil were raised in a cultural climate where guns and fighting were romanticized, with men talking about guns like they’re talking about nice cars, or about their football teams. I’ve actually had a conversation with a man (who would never consider himself violent) in which he told me that he’s obsessed with guns, that he loves them. “The way you love music, I love guns.” I was baffled, as you might imagine. Not just at how much he must be in love with guns, since I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to music, but that young people in Lebanon, after everything done with guns in the country so recently, can still say something like that. And what did our friends sitting with us do when I was shocked by his statement? Yes, they laughed.

Let us all remember what happened this past week when it all calms down, and hopefully change our attitudes and our tolerance towards brutish behavior, whether it’s through verbal violence, or through fights between men who want to establish their “virility” and other ridiculous illusions. Let us recognize that these attitudes are not only wrong, but they’re often manifestations of deep troubles caused by repressed emotions and experiences. If these men weren’t scarred by the war directly, they were most likely raised by people who were, and who, instead of letting out their rage at what they saw, what they lived, chose to let it in, and acted it out on their children and the people around them. Let’s start talking about what happened to all of us, and let us start being vocal about day-to-day unfairness, bullying, and idiotic behavior. That’s when we’ll really start getting better.

Let us be thankful for the people who were willing to get organized and to spread the energy to tackle the corruption and the justice system when it was slow to react to Yves’ killing. Let us stand by Yves’ family, his mother, and express our solidarity, our sympathy in their terrible plight. But let us be weary of the kinds of reactions people displayed on social media, calling for the criminal to be hanged, for him to be publicly executed, calling him an animal and more: realize that in these moments, you’re only hiding behind your reaction. You’re only letting out your rage on this man, because it heals the pain a little bit, because it makes you feel a little bit better. But ultimately, it makes us lose more of your humanity, it makes us brutal and animals ourselves, and more importantly, it distracts us from what we need to do. We should be standing together, we should be talking about the world we live in, and how we can fix it. We should be healthy, and to be healthy in this case means to express our pain, our horror, our trauma, not act it out on others. Not repress it by deflecting the issue.

Let us not allow for Yves’ death to be in vain: we need to realize that this is only a symptom of a much larger problem, and that for these incidents to stop happening, we need to change the way we think, stop accepting what we do accept, and take a deep look inside each and every single one of us.

May he rest in peace.

Symptoms: Part I

Not long ago, I was in Beirut having a debate with friends. I was arguing that many of the problems we have in the country are just symptoms of a long-standing mental condition of sorts. I think the war, or the wars, have scarred us, traumatized us, and our lack of ability to process what happened, what each of us went through, is showing up in very troubling behaviors in the population, exacerbated by a host of added circumstantial problems, with things getting worse and worse over time.

In Lebanon, people are violent. Physically, but also verbally: we’re violent to our friends, our spouses, our children, to random strangers. There is a lot of negativity and aggression going around, with every interaction making things worse, and continuing the thread of exchanges, like a vicious circle. There is also a lot of denial, so much so that I think it has become a national trait, reappearing in many of my closest friends and my family in their daily life. I feel mostly comfortable saying this, however, because I’ve discovered it and watched it play out in myself. An exceptional ability to look the other way, to pretend things are okay when they are really not; this superpower we have is bleeding us dry. Lebanon’s situation is very complicated, and no one can sum up the entire paradigm in a few phrases and diagnoses. But I think we should try to look beyond the surface, the circumstantial, into more systemic and deeply-rooted behaviors in order to uncover approaches that would help us make things better.

Because let us be honest: things are really bad. Everybody is constantly complaining how Lebanon is terrible these days, things are at their worst, and so on. I’ve been hearing it for years, every time I go back, and it’s probably true. But I think we’re doing nothing to improve the situation, because we’re often looking at symptoms (the corruption, individual stories, tragedies), instead of looking at the very complicated disease that ravages our society, a condition with multiple causes, a snake with many heads.

As often happens in these conversations, my friends laughed at me a little bit (perhaps uncomfortably, although I think it’s just wishful thinking on my part). They were telling me that I was being “too serious,” that I needed to relax. They often add that I’m being “too European” about things, whatever that means. This happens frequently, and I suspect it also happens to many people like me who spend a lot of time thinking abstractly, and who often do so outside the box. I’m not feeling sorry for myself, but it has to be said that people who refuse to be cynical, and who manage to maintain a healthy dose of idealism in our society are considered naïve and silly by a massively disillusioned population. I denounce that, and I urge whoever wants to brush this all off as impractical to pause, to slow down, and to be honest with yourself. Do you really think things can get better if we don’t all hold ourselves up to a certain standard of introspection? It’s personal, I know. It makes you feel insecure to go there, it’s terrifying to most, and that’s why we don’t want to do it. It’s a can of worms. But I would say: that’s why you wouldn’t go there publicly, openly. But you must do so with you family, your friends. We all need to open up.

Some of us have killed people. Neighbors, other people’s friends, sons, sisters, our fellow countrymen, some did it out of fear of “the other,” others because the criminal in them that many humans harbor and learn to repress found a perfect outlet. To those people – let me be direct, they were mostly men – the war was a happy time of sorts. They found a structure in the war that made them feel empowered, needed; it gave their existence meaning that they lost once the fighting stopped. There have been documentaries and interviews made with some of these men, who admit to feeling empty once the war ended, as though their purposes vanished. These are some of the people who still have guns in their basements, and who are the first on the street when problems happen, their weapons on their hips, or in their trunks. It’s almost as though they miss the war, and who it allowed them to be. And for younger men, eager to get into fights, it’s as though they haven’t heard enough about how horrible it was. Their parents haven’t spent enough time telling them what war does to people because they haven’t admitted what it has done to them.

Most of us watched people kill our neighbors, our friends, powerless and crushed under the weight of the events unfolding in the country. The war was a terrible time. It has been over for twenty-five years, and we are barely beginning to scratch the surface of the horror stories that took place. The terrible experiences of the many and the even more terrible deeds of the few were pushed under the rug and, one day, everything went back to normal. Well, “normal.” Watching someone die changes you, whoever you are, and watching hundreds die, living in fear of death for years on end: you don’t just walk away from that.

We cannot hide behind fake symbols of reconciliation, and pretend like all of this never happened. We cannot let Majida el Roumi and others sing about it alone, “Bayrut, ya sit ed’dunya, na3tarifu,” and pretend like this does the trick. We all need to go through the motions. The only time the war is mentioned is by politicians who threaten each other and remind each other of the “dangers of sectarian violence,” Taif this and Taif that, but what about the people? When do the people talk about what they’ve lived through? How many of us spend time venting, speaking of what we saw, describing how we felt, what it did to us?

Understandably, no one wants to dwell on this. No one wants to talk to others about what others did to them. We shy away from it, and bury our frustration, our trauma, deep within us, and inevitably act out this massive repression on our children and on people around us. We grow cynical and raise cynical children. We grow suspicious and weary of others, collectively, and we create a toxic climate for ourselves and our children to grow up in and perpetuate the problem.

My reading of the situation regarding violence in Lebanon (and again, it is a very complicated situation) puts the blame on two, deeply connected phenomena: intense machismo and sexism on the one hand, which our patriarchal society is very attached to and always figures out ways to be apologetic for (I’m always teased, even by women, when I bring this up to people in Lebanon); and just as importantly, this collective repression and denial about what we’ve all lived through, and a general refusal to face our reality head on. We’ve lived through an insane war. But don’t bring up the war to be apologetic. I don’t mean to say, “we’ve lived through a war, cut us some slack,” the way many do. I don’t mean to say, “what do you expect?” “We need time,” yes we do, but only if we’re doing something about it.

Our young men are violent. Many have guns. And we do not judge them. We do not criticize their actions. “Boys will be boys.” Really? Is this healthy? Do you really think this is going to lead anywhere? Guns are everywhere, and always in the wrong hands. People always tell me: “they” have guns, why shouldn’t we? First of all, the idea of people in Lebanon referring to each other as “them” baffles me. The fact that a Shiite from the da7yeh will feel closer to an Iranian, or that a Maronite will feel closer to a European Christian than to a Lebanese praying to another God makes no sense to me. We eat the same food, speak the same language, tell the same jokes, and have lived in this little piece of land for centuries. Wake up, people. Which one of you ever met your God? You live together, for… God’s sake. You’re each other’s only reality, stop letting yourselves be manipulated. Stop letting God be the excuse for you to avoid looking at yourself. Stop saying “them” when instead you should be saying “we.”

When you should mostly be saying “me.” Look at yourself. And leave it at that.

So “they” have guns. Alright. But do you really think that, if fighting broke out, guns in the hands of idiots like Charbel Khalil will protect you? When have these guns ever been used on anyone except on the community that has them? Furthermore, when have guns ever protected anyone? With guns, people fight. And when people fight, people die. On all sides. When you see incidents break out in the country, violent incidents, stop seeing new problems. See symptoms.

Look at yourself first. Tell it like you mean it, tell it to others, show they how you felt, how you feel. And let them you what they’ve experienced. Express yourself. It’s all you can do. It’s all we all can do. And leave the rest… to time.