This is a Beirut story, a narrative about life as a new kind of exile, an exile of conscience, in a fabled and, for the West, “infamous” Arab city. This is also a recollection, or, better, a documentation of the events that led to my evacuation from Lebanon due to alleged terrorist threats against my life. Bluntly put, what I most want to trace here is how this nightmare of history-my own and the geo political mess that has plagued Lebanon (especially) since the 1960s-has weighed like a nightmare on my consciousness ever since the United States Embassy in Lebanon informed me that I was on a Palestinian Islamicist “hitlist,” suggesting that this was due to my anti-war activities. I was forced by this apparent threat to reassess my politics, my role as a professor of English literature in the Arab world, and finally my own identity as I returned home to a feeling of “homelessness,” by no means to be confused with real privation, though still a sense of exile.
I am an American, though just another non-Arabophone left liberal who has no practical stake in the region other than a job and friends. But I never thought that Lebanon’s problems would finally be so personal. Ideally, or idealized-I admit it-I have been minding my own business and simply teaching here in Beirut since September, 2001, as well as learning about Lebanon and the Arab world and appreciating the Lebanese people and their culture. But now, after the war against Iraq and my own small-related crisis, things have changed. I do not claim to be typical nor especially unusual in this respect, but I feel now that the contradictions and doubts I have faced, and not yet resolved, are those of many American left-liberal academics today in the U.S. and particularly abroad.
Khalas Habiby? Must you leave us?
Again, I teach English literature-modernism and literary and cultural theory-at the American University of Beirut, popularly known as AUB with the right Lebanese Arabic inflection. Days after the war began a group of Americans in Beirut formed a loose knit group–we never really agreed on a name–and began to organize protests against the war. We stood on the Beirut Corniche with anti-war placards to the amusement and amazement of passing Beirutis, some went to the anti-war rallies with signs reading “Americans against the war on Iraq”, and a group of more than 70 signed a letter of opposition to the war in Iraq and U.S. policy in the Middle East and supporting a just peace for the region and a viable Palestinian state. That letter was addressed to Secretary of State Colin Powell and we sent a deputation to meet the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Vincent Battle, and to present him with the same letter. Also, we translated the letter into Arabic and published it in Beirut’s main Arabic newspaper, An Nahar (the Day) and in the English language daily, The Daily Star. All of the signatories’ names appeared in An Nahar, while only a few were published by The Daily Star. My name was only published in An Nahar. For good measure, and since I was unable to meet the ambassador due to teaching commitments, I wrote a personal letter to the ambassador where I strongly condemned U.S. policy in the region and suggested that many top American government figures should be charged with war crimes due to planned use of depleted uranium and cluster bombs, and, of course, because the war was outside the sanction of the United Nations. At the time I thought little of the group letter and even less of my own letter to Ambassador Battle as so much “sound and fury,” and worried that I had not been more active like my friends in the streets of Manhattan.
It was just after 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, April 4th, and I was strolling across the beautiful and sun drenched AUB campus with a colleague, when another American faculty member approached me quickly, his face gray and drawn. He asked me if I was “going to the 6 o’clock meeting,” and, puzzled, I told him “no”. He added that this was about the threats and gave me a long hard look. I thought he was losing it and afraid due to war rumors and walked on. I had reached the other side of campus, near the far gate-the Medical Gate-when he came running up behind me, pulled me aside from my colleague and told me that he and I, as well as a third American faculty member were on a hit list with 4 other Americans from the Beirut anti Iraq-war group. I thought this was preposterous-why would anyone in Lebanon want to hurt us for opposing the war! In the Arab world we were media darlings some group members had been interviewed on various Lebanese and Arab TV stations, ranging from al Jazeera to Hezbollah’s al Manar (the Light).
So, at 6 o’clock I attended this meeting and learned more about the “hit list”. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on their on-line service on May 15th, an unnamed terrorist group threatened three American AUB faculty. The Chronicle of Higher Education article was misleading for the heading read “Credible threats led to departure of 3 professors at American U. of Beirut during war in Iraq.” As it turned out the single verifiable source for this threat was the U.S embassy in Lebanon who officially denied any involvement in the same article. Indeed, threats aside, the subsequent panic, which seized many Americans in Beirut, was due to the way the US embassy handled this matter. As I learned at the meeting, they started the panic by contacting the other two AUB faculty members by telephone and asking them to come to the embassy to meet with a junior security agent, Garrett Petraia, not the head of security Glen Hirschman. At the embassy they were told about the “hit list” and asked to pass the information on to me and the others on the list, all members of a Beirut based anti Iraq war group. Also, they were told that the information was from the Washington D.C. office of the State Department, that they were simply conduits and that the embassy knew nothing about the origin of the information, that is, how it was collected and when, or any details. However, they were told that the group was an “Islamicist group based in Ain el Helweh, the Palestinian camp near Sidon.” This same information, almost word for word, was repeated to me in person by the same Garrett Petraia only days later when I visited the embassy.
Curiously, my two colleagues thought that the group in question was Esbat al Ansar, a shadowy and small Salafist or ur-Islamicist group with ties to al Qaeda and like-minded Salafist allies stretching from the Persian Gulf (Taleban) to the Atlantic coast of Morocco (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). When I asked Mr. Petraia about the identity of the group behind the threats he simply listed three groups he maintained were active in the camps: Fatah, Hezbollah, and Esbat al Ansar. I pointed out that the first is the old PLO and secular, the second is Lebanese Shi’a, not Sunni like the camp inhabitants, and the camp falls outside its mission and area of control, while the third group is a cipher. I felt that he was leading me to conclude that Esbat was behind the threat, assuming there really was a threat. Also, though AUB and Mr. Petraia recommended that I keep quiet about the “hit list” I subsequently discovered that the Australian embassy discussed the threats with one of their nationals while the principal of the American Community School reported that the U.S. embassy had informed her of the threats, though none of her teachers were on the “list.” This lack of concern for the “victims” privacy and safety demonstrated either a serious lapse in professionalism or even malice, and only added to my suspicions about their role in the affair.
The evening of April 4th I was upset and though earlier, during the meeting with the administration, I had declared I would not leave Lebanon and that this threat was the work of the U.S. embassy, I nonetheless began to feel fear coursing through my body. As I explained to anyone who would listen, it is chilling to hear such news from a U.S embassy security representative, whatever the circumstances. Clearly we had angered someone somewhere. I was suspicious then and today feel convinced that the origin of this rumor was in Washington D.C., not Sidon.
Like many, I am wary of U.S. embassies everywhere, and until that moment I had no interaction with them and was not interested in being on their emergency contact list. The American staff seem to have little understanding of Arabic or Lebanese culture, and they rarely leave their fortified compound except in armored vehicles. The embassy-fort is outside and east of Beirut, hanging like Dracula’s castle off the hillside near a village called Awkar, eyeing Beirut across St. George’s Bay. Most Lebanese have stories about summary visa rejections and rude treatment at the hands of the embassy staff while most Lebanese and other residents have little faith in the intentions of the embassy. Some will recount that the previous embassy site was near Ain el Mreisseh in Ras Beirut, next to AUB, and that in 1984 it was completely destroyed by a suicide bomber and many of its staff were tragically killed. Today the site is an anonymous parking lot, a blank space overdetermined by personal and geopolitical narrative. Of course, this was during the Lebanese civil war (1975 to 1991), when many AUB faculty were kidnapped, and the American university president, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated. This was a terrible period which still haunts Lebanon and AUB and which The Chronicle of Higher Education gratuitously mentioned in the same May 15th article. In contrast to the embassy’s arm’s length relationship to Lebanon and the Lebanese, AUB is still open in the same location in West Beirut.
After dealing with the U.S. embassy the AUB administration was a marked contrast, a change for the better. President John Waterbury and Provost Peter Heath must have had thoughts of AUB’s past and future-a reputation stained by violence against its faculty-in mind when we sat down that Friday evening. To their credit they remained calm and good spirited and immediately offered us the “voluntary evacuation” plan and other support to protect us and make us feel better. Within a week the three of us had left the country and left behind worried students, colleagues struggling to cover our courses, and friends who felt that we might never return. When I peered out of the window of the Middle East Airlines jet on Friday morning, April 11th, I wanted to burst into tears as Jounieh and East Beirut disappeared below.
What I realized in New York was that I was “somebody” in Beirut, or rather that I was important to many in the AUB community, and I especially felt an unusual sense of purpose as a professor. Yes, a kind of colonial identity persists in Lebanon and at AUB today-given the prestige of the school, AUB faculty are treated with great respect by most Lebanese-but with my anti-war activities, as minimal as they were, I had also gained a special relevance and place in Lebanon which most certainly bothered the embassy and U.S. State Department. Consider that I and the other Americans in Lebanon presented another, alternative American position, a position for peace and justice in the Middle East. We live here as well, which immediately gives us more credibility than the pundits and experts in the U.S. media who (practically) know little about the Arab world or Islam, and even the embassy staff, tucked away in their bunker. Most of us speak and read Arabic to some extent, and we travel and have gained familiarity with the region and Arab culture. And we live in a largely Islamic context. Again, we can best contradict the lies and bigotry which emanate from the U.S government and mainstream media, from Fox News to The New York Times (the bad-faith liberal and near racist Thomas Friedman always reminds me of Phil Ochs’ classic “Love me I’m a Liberal”) simply because we are better informed and uncompromised American commentators. Also, in the Arab world, it is rare to actually see American dissent, that is, to meet Americans who feel as strongly as many Arabs do that U.S. policy in the region is decidedly unjust, biased, and must change now. It is even rarer to meet Americans such as those of Beirut, who do not fear and actually understand the basis of support for and objectives of various Islamicist movements such as Hezbollah.
Mediations leading to war
The April 4th threat report was not without mediations and “lead up” incidents. Still, despite the clouds of war that have been gathering since September 11th, 2001, I was not worried and felt secure and happy here. When I signed my contract to teach here in July 2001 a Lebanese friend in New York recommended that I read Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation, a truly moving and occasionally frightening firsthand account of the war. Fisk is a Beiruti today and lives on the Corniche near AUB.
Yet from the first day I have been amazed at the Lebanese resolve to put the past behind for the sake of the present and the future. Indeed, the government does its part and keeps sectarianism to a minimum, brutally suppressing student supporters of the exiled leader of the anti Syrian and Lebanese nationalist, General Michel Aoun, or the jailed leader of the right wing Christian Lebanese Forces (Alquwwaat al lubnaniyya), Samir Geagea (pronounced Jahjah). Perhaps the Lebanese national anthem should be Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” but I have lived comfortably and without fear in Beirut since September, 2001. AUB is situated in Hamra on the west side of Beirut, or Ras Beirut, the “head of Beirut” which projects out into the sea-notably, this is the Muslim side of the city according to the still strong sectarian Beiruti imaginary. I recommend the film West Beirut for further insight. Like many Americans I came here with much trepidation, but quickly realized that the city and country is a safer and friendlier place to live than New York City. But, all of my romanticization aside, you can never forget the civil war and the thought that things can change quickly and yesterday’s friendly neighbor is today’s enemy. From the damaged Holiday Inn near the Corniche, and the site of a legendary battle between the Phalange and Palestinian fighters, to so many other beaten buildings and people, and the daily over flights by Israeli fighter-bombers, there are many reminders that this is an active war zone and has been since 1948. After all, Lebanon is the home to nearly half a million Palestinian refugees, many from the 1947-48 war in Palestine, now Israel, and from every war and conflict to date.
Obviously, at a day-to-day level recent history permeates all, but life goes on in Beirut, and for the most part it is pleasant and fulfilling. Still, the city was not quiet, and in fact was seized by a weird pre war urban hysteria over Satanists. The police visited schools and set up checkpoints looking for young Beirutis dressed in black with long hair and body piercing. Rumors swirled about blood sacrifices, ritual murders, and the like, though to date the police have found no “proof” of such activities.
And then there were the bombings. On March 24th, at around 11 p.m. I was grading student papers, sitting on my couch in my Manara apartment, a leafy middle class neighborhood in West Beirut adjacent to AUB when I heard a very loud boom. I looked out of the window towards the Australian embassy, a nearby target to my mind, but saw nothing and felt like a foolish and paranoid American. It had been raining, and the noise could have been thunder, or so I thought. It was in fact a small bomb, which security forces think was a grenade or stick of dynamite, placed just inside the grounds of the British Council, the UK’s cultural outfit here in Lebanon. Paradoxically the British Council, which closed down the previous week and then sent its staff home, is best known here for its English language courses, which, by reputation, are favored for their quality and low cost by Shi’a and Palestinian Beirutis. The bomb damaged the center’s wall and broke windows in area apartment buildings and shops, but was more symbolic than destructive. Some of my students, all young women who lived in Beirut during the war and the Israeli bombings of the late 1990s, mocked me when I described the boom and with a smirk told me that I had obviously never heard a real bomb explode. Chris de Burg recently recorded a song with the Lebanese singer Elissa, about such young women, “Lebanese Nights.” Another Hamra local, an elderly newspaper salesman described the bomb to the city’s Anglophone newspaper, The Daily Star, as a zucchini, an allusion to a Lebanese dish, “cousa”, a squash stuffed with ground lamb and rice.
The police and Internal Security Forces rushed to the scene but did not catch the bombers and the action was not “claimed” by any group. However, many attribute the blast to the same group that attacked a Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other American identified businesses. These attacks are curious because they ostensibly build on the Palestinian boycott of Israeli and Zionist companies, but the boycott group has disavowed violence. Also, Lebanese business people have tried many times to explain that these are franchises and Lebanese owned and operated, while almost all of the clientele are Lebanese or Arab.
On April 5th, a day after the threat report, a small bomb exploded in the bathroom at the McDonald’s in Dora, and East Beirut suburb near the coastal highway, mostly populated by Christians and Armenians. The bomb injured a man and his two boys, but, more horrifying, this bomb was the trigger for a second bomb, a car filled with 50 kg. of explosives. Fortunately the triggers failed and with good forensic work the Lebanese police tracked the owner and within days rounded up most of the gang responsible. Whatever the bombers intended is irrelevant, for this bomb would have caused huge numbers of fatalities and destruction, and given its location would have destabilized Lebanon. The bombers were reportedly from the same Esbat al Ansar. And in the past week Esbat al Ansar and its splinter group, Esbat al Nour, were attacked by Arafat’s Fatah-the leader of the splinter group was badly wounded in an ambush while returning from a funeral. Fatah was, hitherto, the power in the Ain al Hilweh camp, but Esbat al Ansar and its allies fought back fiercely, neutralizing and exposing the weakness of the secular Fatah.
Another mediation to the April 4th threat report is al Manar, again, the television station for Hezbollah, The Party of God. One of their hosts, a graduate of AUB, contacted me and a few other members of the Americans against the Iraq War group, asking us to present our position to their viewership. It astounded me, but that was Hezbollah’s position, that this was Bush’s war and many Americans opposed it-and still do!-and given my fears about being targeted, I certainly appreciated the intervention. I had some trepidation about appearing on Hezbollah TV, and what American would not given their fierce reputation as the Arab fighters who defeated the mighty Israeli army and liberated south Lebanon. Despite dates and assertions by various American “experts” and journalists, Hezbollah was founded in 1983, and grounded in the left Shi’a Islamic thought of Moussa Sadr (the Lebanese Shi’a imam reportedly kidnapped by Libya’s Quadaffi) in his role as head of the Amal (“hope” in Arabic) movement’s splinter, The Party of the Oppressed on Earth. The point is that as I understand the history of the group, Hezbollah only fully emerged as a cohesive party after many of the events of the early 1980s such as the bombing of the US embassy and the marine barracks. Hezbollah’s role in terrorism in Lebanon during the early 1980s and abroad (Argentina), which their defenders point out falls outside their mission and remains unproven, at least as most Americans commonly understand legal proof and evidence. Though there is (was) some overlap in people involved with the notorious events of the early 1980s, namely Imad Mughnieh, it is only a single and discrete aspect of the party mission which Hezbollah them into conflict with the United States, and that part of the mission is to resist foreign-Israelioccupation. I am not offering a defense of Hezbollah at all, nor are their violent actions against all sectors of Lebanese society and Americans in Lebanon excusable, but rather this is an attempt to separate deliberate and libelous misinformation, again the Big Lie, from truth, as murky and elusive, as the latter might seem in our time. Hezbollah, like Iraq, is so much more than a few people and terrorist events shrouded in mystery, such as the kidnapping of CIA station chief, William Buckley, and if there is another war against Syria or Lebanon, it will surely be based on these unfounded claims. These claims might be true, but the American government and every talking head on TV who beats the war drum must be called to account and required to tell the truth, not half truths or lies.
Israel and the US have targeted Hezbollah because they constitute effective and, in their terms, principled resistance-bluntly put; they fear Hezbollah and its ability to mobilize many in the Shi’a population and beyond for a Totalitatmobilimachung. What many Americans don’t know is that the resistance that wore down the Israeli occupation was also a total Lebanese resistance, with support from almost all parties in the country where middle class fathers would disappear for clandestine missions in the occupied south. Today Hezbollah retains a small fighting force and they fire anti aircraft guns at Israeli air intrusions-daily affairs-and occasionally battle the Israeli army in the occupied Shebaa Farms area (the UN and the US claim it is Syrian, though the latter and Lebanon maintain that it is Lebanese land-incredibly, that the issue is not occupation and resistance seems to be another Lewis Carroll inspired diplomatic canard on the part of Israel and the U.S.).
Recently I heard a CNN reporter acknowledge that Hezbollah is more than an effective guerilla army, and even point out that they are the second largest party in the Lebanese parliament, and so constitute a democratic presence here. This same CNN reporter and others, even American politicians like Bob Graham, all acknowledge that Hezbollah run schools and hospitals for all of the south Lebanese residents. And they protect the Wazzani Springs pump that provides vital water to local villages. In Lebanon Hezbollah has its enemies, but many Lebanese see them as the authentic expression of Lebanese resistance. Indeed, Tony Hanania’s novel, Unreal City, is inspired by this phenomena and tracks the radicalization of an upper middle-class Lebanese Christian man who eventually joins the Islamic resistance-right or wrong, to many on the left this seemed to be the most effective and meaningful way to resist overwhelming force and occupation.
Clearly, if I had spoken my mind and stated all of the above on al Manar I would have made many powerful enemies, especially in the United States government. On Wednesday, April 2nd I told the al Manar host that I would think about his request for an interview. I agreed to appear on al Manar Thursday morning, but by Friday afternoon, April 4th, “I’d been told.”
A “Professor of English Literature” in Beirut
The narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes describes himself as “an old teacher of languages” and “the Professor” of The Secret Agent is an Anarchist bomber who has rigged his body with explosives to scare off the police and avoid arrest. I teach Conrad’s novels, and often think of these figures with mocking reference to myself, but perhaps the better literary analogy would probably be to a Graham Greene or Malcolm Lowry novel. Or even Orwell’s Burmese Days. My point is that these three novelists understood the corrosive effects of good intentions in a colonial, or now, post-colonial context. In my teaching and extracurricular work I have tried to bring a little of my cultural studies background-British cultural studies, Lacan and Althusser-and a related intellectual sensibility to Lebanon. But as outsiders we must be respectful, self-critical and circumspect, aware of the contradictions that plague “good intentions.”
Indeed, I was thinking of these contradictions when I sat in New York, and even earlier, before the war, in March, when Edward Said addressed a large public audience at AUB. He was welcomed like a hero and favorite son, returning to a city that has figured so largely in his life and on the world stage for the last 50 years. As Said he entered the large auditorium from the back, cutting an impressive and well coiffed figure as he walked down the stairs to the stage, several hundred Beirutis stood up, cheered approval and loudly applauded. This man means so much to the people here, but the disjunction between Said the symbol and Said the intellectual was quickly apparent. His talk was on the importance of the Humanities today, on the eve of war, and with the lives and future of the Arab people threatened. It was an odd argument that he has made before, for his referent, the Humanities, was finally the canon of European thought, specifically, literary study. Yes, he marched into a room filled with Arab citizens of a city which was recently ripped apart by a civil war traceable to the evisceration of Palestine, and in a climate of fear and confusion Edward Said proposed that we all read the English literary canon to find answers. Of course this is a simplistic reduction, but even so I agree with him, for at the heart of this tradition, as he eloquently argued, is a critical tradition of reading and writing which right now is the best weapon against Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon. Against their Big Lies, and the racism of neo orientalists such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, we must launch our own carefully considered responses, grounded in close reading, responses intended for an audience here and in the West. The Arab world must recognize and know the United States and its cultural traditions, its discontinuities, in order to better deal with and live with it. And he presented this position as an American of Palestinian heritage. The students, however, were only interested in a discussion of material resistance, which is of suicide bombing and immediate and tangible responses to Israeli atrocities and to further the cause of Palestine. It was a curious disjunction of age and culture, between a college audience and an intellectual from the Humanities (in a school where the Humanities were eviscerated) who described himself as an American and a Palestinian.
So, I have been wondering what cultural studies must do to establish itself in a country that, while radically different from the “West” and the roots of cultural studies, nonetheless presents a historically important challenge and site of meaningful intellectual struggle. The role of cultural studies in Lebanon is a very personal matter for me given that the preponderance of my graduate training is in cultural studies and literary theory. Again, when I came to Beirut I brought my political, intellectual, and cultural baggage with me, and though I was by no means naïve about what I was doing here I quickly realized that my role and politics no longer pertained.
Class, the keyword of British cultural studies, is overdetermined by religion here, and an effective analysis must entail a careful and nuanced understanding of sectarianism and possibilities and limitations of class solidarity, even as the regional bourgeoisie demonstrate a classless solidarity. Solidère, after all, is the name of the private conglomerate, which seized much of the valuable land in downtown Beirut and is currently developing a private Orientalist Disneyland that will probably be bought by foreign investors. Gender and sexuality are similarly loaded issues here, but one must avoid false universalist and pious denunciations of the veil and the women who wear it-let the Shi’a women free themselves. And after 20 years or so of post-colonial studies in American university English departments, even post colonialism seems irrelevant where it should matter most. Perhaps a good part of the irrelevance of post-colonialism is the eschewal, or avoidance of the question of Palestine-a true colonial situation-or engaged politics as such. My first semester, just after September 11th, 2001, I taught a course where we read post-colonial theory and the usual array of novels-Rushdie, Achebe, Coetzee-and the 6 novels by Palestinian and Lebanese novelists. It is not that ideas such as Bandung nationalism or “liminality” or a purely textual sense of “post” do not apply here. It is just that we, my students and I, live in the midst of the mess at hand. No amount of academic writing fully captures the injustice suffered here, the exasperating acceptance of Israeli and American racist rhetoric spewed by bad faith liberals such as Thomas Friedman and Bernard Lewis, and all justifications for barbarism grounded in rhetoric about the “arab street” and Yassir Arafat’s predilections. Who cares anyway, even if it is all true!!! Are Palestinians not people? Perhaps only Salman Rushdie could really capture the evil ironies, which characterize the situation of Palestine and Lebanon. Yet as a literature professor it is encouraging to see the resurgence of the novel in Lebanon, where new novels in English, French, and Arabic, seem to appear with increasing frequency. Hanan al Shaykh, Elias Khoury, Rachid al Daif, Huda Barakat and Rabih Alameddine are some of the many names.
Again, I am an English Literature professor, and despite Said’s defence of the humanities and a literary education-close reading and careful reflective writing-English Literature is in an odd political situation here. Of course there are offerings on post-colonialism and studies of the British novel and empire, but finally the curriculum hammers home a self sustaining notion of Britishness, with a little America, and the anglophone cultural preeminence. I find myself, despite my background and politics, relying upon the aura of the tradition like so many colonials before me, though I think there is one important contradiction at play here. What Said did not explicitly articulate in his talk is the need for British and American studies in Arab universities, not as a matter of reinforcing cultural hegemony of the new Empire, but as a matter of resistance. It is simply a matter of understanding the occupier’s language and culture, and, getting back to Said’s point, to understand the occupier’s contradictions to better deal with and eventually fend off the occupation.
Cultural Studies helps American academics in this respect, with its tradition of self-critique and skepticism towards the unquestioned value of freedom and the ideals of the enlightenment. Too often we are subjected to the liberal mantra that the Arab world must “modernize” and accept the “gift” of American democracy. Maybe the most important task for us within cultural studies, and indeed for all Americans of principle and conscience, is to actually question the bizarre and pathological imposition of these “ideals”-democracy and modernity-on the Arab world with no moment of reflection upon the ethics or our actions. Can freedom be imposed, whatever this might mean in Bush/Ashcroft’s America? Why can’t we free Compton, East St. Louis, and Bushwick first? Democracy is needed in Florida. Moreover the calls for modernity and democracy smack of over two centuries of colonial self-justification as Said documented so well in Orientalism 25 years ago.
Exile on Bliss Street
In 1866 Daniel Bliss and other American missionaries founded the American University of Beirut as the Syrian Protestant College. Today the main thoroughfare at the top of the AUB campus bears the founder’s name, hence Bliss Street. At the time its campus in Hamra was well outside the old city limits, though now it is an integral part of city life. Indeed, like many other university neighborhoods, Hamra is a kind of Latin Quarter with bookshops and cafes, many young people, and shops, which cater to them. And though Hamra is considered an expensive area, with some of the highest rents in Beirut and many absentee Gulf landlords, it is also a bit tawdry and sleazy. For most of the last four decades Hamra was also the intellectual area of Beirut with publishers and newspapers, and leftist groups all based here. The Palestinian archive is still based in Hamra despite Israeli bombings. Unfortunately the neighborhood recently lost one of its landmarks on Rue Hamra, the Modca café, a 1960s Mod establishment whose stainless steel front was still riddled by heavy machine gun fire and where an Israeli officer was assassinated while sipping his coffee during the brief occupation of West Beirut. Still, though Hamra is only a shadow of its glorious past, like Beirut itself, it is a vital place and unlike New York and London has spaces where all sorts-artists, writers, musicians, and oddballs-find refuge, welcome, and succor. Here, unlike anywhere else in the Middle East you can find a mix of sects and sex, people feeling free to be themselves. As a woman friend recently told me, here Mohammed might live with his Christian girlfriend, Elissa, or, his boyfriend, Pierre from Mansourieh. And then there is the odd collection of non-Arab residents.
Things have been changing for the worse though. Like many Latin Quarter streets in Europe and the United States, Bliss Street is dotted with fast food restaurants, even a Starbucks and McDonalds. The latter positioned its sign in Arabic so that it is visible from inside the campus, through the Oriental-looking gateway. Despite their clever positioning and the power of the McDonald’s brand name it has been successfully boycotted here since the fall of 2001 and is still guarded by troops around the clock, unlike Burger King, just down the block.
It is easy for a European or American to fit in here and to live fairly comfortably, as I quickly found out in 2001. But since that date, and especially since the Iraq war, I have felt estranged in so many ways, a new kind of exile. There is the usual sense of estrangement associated with language, religion, and culture. The estrangement begins in fundamental ways for the Lebanese, like many cultures outside the U.S. and Western Europe, do not use toilet paper, and the Arabic toilet replaces the usual commode. Language is not a serious problem given that most Lebanese, like many in the Arab world speak some English-this does not work the other way, as American soldiers shout commands to Iraqis in English-but there are moments when it would be easier and I could move through the city with greater comfort if I was fluent in colloquial Arabic. Fluency also provides some security, as people here are open to dialogue.
Still, all of the usual markers which divide expats and foreigners from the host country-food, language, etc.-are finally irrelevant compared to this other sense of exile I have felt here. For me this new exile is largely political and has to do with the public discourse about the Arab and Muslim world in the United States, and with the exposure of my own politics, my realization that maybe I am just a liberal engaged in apologetics after all.
I think that this sense of exile I feel today starts with Palestine. The second chapter of Fisk’s Pity the Nation is titled “The Keys to Palestine.” He refers to the keys many of the Palestinians proudly display to their houses in Palestine from which they were driven by Zionist irregular forces (yes, a euphemism). In a recent news photograph of a pro-Hamas demonstration near one of the camps here, small children held huge key-shaped placards, evoking the right of return. The fact is that my stay here is haunted by Palestine, and this was apparent to me on the first night when the AUB driver dropped me off at the Mayflower Hotel on the evening of September 30th, 2001. Outside the hotel a huge banner was hanging over the street declaring, “Palestinians are freedom fighters.” But part of living here has been coping with the way I feel, my politics, and the fact that I am American. I carry Palestine with me in a way, everywhere I go. Palestine is with me, not as a matter of guilty conscience due to my country’s support for Israel and occupation. Though I indulge in all the usual romanticizations of the place, there is something more at stake. No, for me Palestine is not so much a place, but a state of mind, and not a religious one, but a place of consciousness. Still, Palestine is material or better, territorial, contiguous, and for the here and now. Mostly, though, Palestine for me is remarkable and important for the Palestinian spirit which drives its people’s struggle for a better life in the here and now, because this is a struggle about family, friends, and life, not obscurantism.
In a recent article (8/6/03) in Counterpunch, Said reiterated some of the same points he made in the March lecture but also commented,
I have spent a great deal of my life during the past 35 years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention paid to the reality of the Jewish people and what they suffered by way of persecution and genocide. The paramount thing is that the struggle for equality in Palestine/Israel should be directed toward a humane goal, that is, co-existence, and not further suppression and denial. Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots. Therefore it would seem to be a vital necessity for independent intellectuals always to provide alternative models to the simplifying and confining ones based on mutual hostility that have prevailed in the Middle East and elsewhere for so long.
This comment appealed to me for though I (too) feel so strongly about Palestine, I also feel very strongly about the importance of secular Jewish culture in my life and to my identity. What I am addressing here is that apparent antithesis or opposition between anything Arab and anything Jewish. This is a false opposition as most of us know, but we must work hard to overcome it. And by Jewish culture I don’t mean simply the everyday of life of New York City-food, customs, and language-but rather a certain sensibility, a kind of joyous pessimism, all buttressed by the rich secular political and intellectual tradition of the American left. Maybe it is best to not identify this tradition as Jewish anymore given how it has been so deeply assimilated by many Americans, particularly New Yorkers. Yet, I think of this tradition, and hold onto its Jewish character for a couple of reasons, both ironic. The first is personal, for some of my exilic angst plays out in the classroom when I find it difficult, if not painful to bring this tradition and is sensibility to my Arab and Muslim students. That is, I find it very difficult to teach them about such a rich intellectual and political secular Jewish tradition. Of course I can teach texts by Marx and Freud and Benjamin and Kafka and so many others, but only as alienated figures, who are separated from their lives as secular Jews in contexts which mediate their work and sensibility. I think of the sense of Deleuze and Guattari’s “minority” in this regard. Many young Lebanese of college age have traveled abroad, and many have lived in the U.S and Europe-they are cosmopolitan and not anti-semitic. But most are strongly opposed to Israel. With recent bombings of the Beirut power stations, daily overflights by Israeli fighter planes, the recent occupation, how and why should they not feel hostility. Yet, it is my perception that they do not want to hear about another aspect of Jewish, or even Israeli politics and culture. This is unfortunate if only because of alliances which might be forged.
Perhaps, finally, the problem mostly lies with me, that I feel too eager to tell these young people, many of whom have directly experienced Israeli brutality, that all is not wrong with Israel and the Jewish world, and as such position myself as a liberal of bad conscience. I taught African American literature at Medgar Evers College, the largely African American and Caribbean college in the CUNY system for two years, and it was tough teaching Frederick Douglass and Walter Mosley. I felt like a good intentioned white man, indulging his guilty conscience, and more than once felt as though I should just do what is “expected” and teach the Romantics and Jane Austen.
But a return to the canonical Austen is tantamount to capitulation and somehow and some way I must carry on the conversation and say what I have to say about this same secular Jewish tradition. First, I feel that this tradition is inseparable from my support for the Palestinian people and a viable Palestine even though these days some demagogues smear a principled politics of conscience with anti-Semitism. It is this tradition which provided the intellectual and human basis for so many of the good things and fine achievements in American public life, ranging from public services, and I especially think of the City University of New York, to the rights of workers and the formation of labor unions. Of course these were not solely Jewish accomplishments, but the Jewish contribution was significant.
Like Said, as a graduate of a doctoral program of comparative literature I think of Erich Auerbach who fled the Nazis and wrote Mimesis in exile in Istanbul. And I also think of modernism, of modern art and the culture of the city with respect to this same secular Jewish cultural tradition. Raymond Williams commented that modernism was inseparable from the modern city, and in turn from immigration, and he pointed to New York as the capital of such culture, the city of immigrants. It is hardly necessary to point out that a large number of the American writers and artists in this time and in the various modernist movements and those which followed were Jewish. I think of this fact for two reasons: because I teach this literature and because in some ways modernism still has some valence, some value in this part of the world, in Lebanon. My favorites among the writers I mentioned above, Rachid al Daif and Elias Khoury, are modernists, as is a favorite filmmaker, Elie Suleiman.
Perhaps the root of this lies with the well-known irony that both Palestinians and Jews are the consummate world exiles, one historic and the other newly “made.” Also Lebanon itself has always been a “home” of exiles, with its Armenian population from the genocide in the early 20th century, the Palestinians from the 1940s, as well as the Maronites, the Druze, and even the Jewish population, all peoples who fled persecution elsewhere. And since the civil war, the Lebanese have developed their own exilic culture with Lebanese scattered around the world in seemingly every continent.
A friend from Brooklyn recently described the quandary of the American intellectual as a matter of a few choices. He wrote to me that American intellectuals can write with commitment and passion like Said and frame our experience in terms such as Globalization and its impact on where we stand, our region (whether Brooklyn or Beirut), or we can follow the model of writers such as Paul Bowles and Jean Genet. The former embraced the culture of the Maghreb over and against that of the West, New York City, while the latter was uncompromised in his opposition to imperialism and racism.
Which brings me back to exile. In one of his most eloquent essays, “Reflections on Exile” (collected in a book with that title), Said examines the literature of exile and this new interest in exilic writing and criticism. As an intellectual tradition exile is easily traced back to the Romantics (German and British through to the 20th century and George Lukács’ awkward idea of “transcendental homelessness” which distinguishes us moderns-we are all constitutively “rootless.” Importantly, however, Said distinguishes between political exiles, exilic writers who are not “at home,” and refugees. Unlike some others who have written about exile I am not interested in etymology here (bad faith retreat) or in preserving exile and immigration/diaspora as opposite poles, but rather encourage an understanding of exile as a range of possibilities and possible solidarities. Exilic writing in my view must entail commitment. Said, then, attempts to both “textualize” the experience of so many illiterate refugees (or non-writers), and to point to the self absorbed qualities of so much exilic writing-he calls these sulky exiles-which seem to be privileged over the lives of those who have been forcibly driven from their homes to other countries where they are not “at home” and not welcome. This is Palestine in exile, whether in Lebanon or Jersey City.
Yet we also think of Bowles as an exilic writer for part of his persona and his work entailed his rejection of American life as much as his affirmation of life in the Maghreb. And Bowles was writing during the 1950s, a period of conformism and repression only matched by America today. Bowles then was an exile of conscience, and it is this kind of refusal and non-conformism that I propose we resume today as new(er) form of exile. For academics and intellectuals this might be real exile, that is, a rejection of mainstream America and mainstream American life. A rejection of the new conformism. Indeed we must refuse official America and as a matter of content and form and bring with us to the Arab world-with the correct measure of humility and circumspection-the best of America’s other culture, its truly egalitarian traditions and the commitment to human rights and the defence of difference. And so practically this rejection might entail teaching and working abroad, and right now this should be in the Arab world. But whether one chooses exile outside the U.S. or assumes an exilic stance within, this new form of exile must also include a political embrace of Palestine and the Arab world. In the American university we must encourage the study of Arabic language, Arab history, and an objective (and self-critical) study and interest in Islam. Unlike the neo-cons we should speak about the Arab and Islamic worlds from a position of knowledge and humility. Exile, Palestine, and the Arab world, all combine now, in 2003, at this historic juncture-it is in the here and the now, one way or the other, that we must struggle for meaningful peace and justice in this world.
But where do I fit in? Am I in exile, here on Bliss Street, in Beirut, Lebanon? I certainly feel homeless today, unwelcome in the United States due to my opposition to the government’s war, and sick at the level of public support for the war, even in my beloved New York City where armed National Guardsmen are posted in the subways. And I am certainly not Lebanese, and Beirut is not really my home. What I want to establish is that this experience is not entirely a matter of choice but something else, perhaps best described as a professional commitment, an unfortunate circumstance I share with so many other American PhDs.
I thought of all of this when I was forced to return. I realized that the school might allow me to stay in the United States, to break my contract and never come back to Lebanon. At least, on the face of it, I had the perfect excuse, and everyone will readily believe my life was actually in danger. Though my loved ones were in New York, and my mother and brother begged me to stay, I wanted to come back to Lebanon. I missed late nights at the Baromètre café, tucked away off Rue Makhoul where the artists and oddballs of Beirut eat, drink, dance and listen to Umm Kulthoum, Fairouz, Toufic Farouk, with spots of Miles Davis, Louis and Coltrane. Again, I have a place here, oddly enough, with all of its contradictions and here my teaching and scholarship means something, whatever the school and its trustees and administration finally stand for. And there is poignancy to this battered city; Beirut has soul, something that New York City, after (and due to) the days of Giuliani, sorely lacks. The funkiness and liberated cacophony of New York was silenced in the name of law and order and private property. In Beirut things are different, and perhaps this is because there is no housing shortage and a Giuliani-like police state is not possible, and then there is soul, by which I mean the vibrancy of the city. It gives me hope that Beirut is being rebuilt, not so much in the downtown Solidère area where the Lebanese bourgeoisie expropriated properties to develop an Orientalist Disneyland for well-to-do tourists, but in the minds of Beirutis in the southern suburbs in the mid to low income Muslim neighborhoods like Basta and Ras al Nabah. Life persists and thrives here, vibrant and defiant despite the best attempts of the world’s powers to crush these people. So, if I derive some inspiration from the indomitable spirit of the Palestinian people, so I also admire the bravery and love of life I find here, in Beirut, Lebanon.
On May 11th, 2003, I returned to my job and was warmly greeted by my students and colleagues. It was strange to come back to this city, so far from New York, and to find my place, on my terms. After all, I could have stayed in New York with the blessing of AUB while the U.S. State Department and embassy would have been pleased! But I came back because finally my job was very important to me. One of my students, a Palestinian whose family are from a village near Nablus in pre-1947 Palestine, advised me to steer clear of explicit political activity. She told me that instead of such activities the best and most subversive act I could take was to stay around and teach her and the other students about literary and cultural theory–to educate a new generation of Arab intellectuals. I agree and for now it is my form of protest. What I learned is that these days one can easily fall afoul of the political ruling class in the United States, and that this is due to the tenuousness of their policy and strategy as much as their desire to crush dissent. And it is important to continue dissent. I learned that dissent from an American academic abroad, from the Arab world, is especially important, for, again, I live here and know better. So join me for a little dissent and treason at the Baromètre in Beirut.
ANDREW C. LONG teaches at the American University in Beirut. He can be reached at: email@example.com