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A Picture from Beirut

by MALINI JOHAR SCHUELLER

When I decided to go to Beirut early last month to give a talk titled “Beauty Without Borders and Other Feminisms” at the American University of Beirut, the subject of my talk seemed both appropriate and ironic.  Like most postcolonialists I had an intense suspicion of the buzzwords of globalization–global flows, borderlesness, circulation, smooth spaces, migrancy and transnationalism–because they ignored unequal distribution,  the starkly imperial makeup of global financial institutions like the IMF and WTO, and the hegemony of the U.S. post 9/11.  Indeed the tearing down of the Berlin wall seemed to have been symptomatic not of a breakdown of borders but of the creation of sharply policed borders–witness the construction of literal walls in Gaza and the U.S.-Mexico border.  So my talk was going to question the well intentioned global feminist assumptions of American women who had created Beauty Without Borders as an NGO two years after the US bombing of Afghanistan in order to train Afghan women to become beauticians. Little did I know that I was going to witness the traumas of living with colonial and imperial borders.

Following a call for a labor strike initiated by the Hezbollah-led opposition on May 7, the streets of Beirut became strangely spectral.  Few stragglers walked the normally busy Corniche and as the neutral Lebanese army stood by, opposition supporters blocked access to the country’s only international airport.  Soon, pro-government Future Movement supporters chocked off the roads between Beirut and Damascus in the South and Tripoli and Syria to the North.  The borders of Lebanon  were effectively sealed.  A day later, fighting between Hezbollah and government supporters broke out in earnest.

As a brown-skinned woman teaching in the U.S., I had learned to live with the contradictions of borders.  As a professor, I was both privileged and respected while as a brown Asian I was both envied as part of the nerds and pitied for my cultural backwardness.  In Lebanon, the security guards at the university eyed me suspiciously and sometimes asked me for identification while lighter skinned people walked through.  In all likelihood, I resembled the ubiquitous Sri Lankan maid (whose servile manner mirrored that of the Indian domestic servant) I had seen following their Lebanese employers. Many of these maids were of Tamilian origin and had escaped the politics of Sri Lanka, hoping to make it across Cyprus to and then any European country willing to take them as refugees.  Meanwhile, they were willing to suffer virtual enslavement in Lebanese households.

But as I walked with my hosts on the campus of the American University on May 8, I witnessed the material and psychic effects of living with harsh and painful borders.  Lebanon’s diverse religious groups have historically lived in harmony but have also witnessed internecine strife and the country has been beset by the interests of powerful outside forces.  Government allied leader, Jumblatt had issued a direct challenge to Hezbollah’s army and weaponry; in turn, Hezbollah leader Nasarullah had stated in a press conference, his group’s intentions of defending their weapons and had declared provocatively, “We are the state; they are the gang.” As we made our way through the campus, each secretly wondering what would transpire while we debated the innocuous question of  a restaurant for dinner, gunshots started to ring out from different parts of the city.  The campus had already been emptied of most students but the stragglers who sat at the entrance continued their light banter and laughter.  A group of young men joked around while their friends strummed on a guitar, undeterred by the noise of firearms outside.  For me, the shots ringing from different directions, seemed perilously close, threatening and disorienting although the tranquil and neatly trimmed New England style campus felt strangely reassuring.  Betsy, the soft-spoken though fearless wife of my host, continued discussing restaurant plans, interspersing them with tranquil comments about the sounds we were hearing: “that’s an R.P.G.; that’s a Kalashnikov; that’s a mortar” in a tone more suited to one commenting on a flower garden.  Betsy and her husband Patrick, American expats who had refused to leave Beirut in 2006, had lived through the Israeli bombardment and were battle hardy.  The relentless sounds of gunfire which seemed to me perilously close, were to Betsy at a reassuring distance, magnified sounds ricochetting off the buildings of the university. From our campus apartment we saw tanks racing across the Corniche while gunshots and mortar explosions continued all night long, broken intermittently with thunder and lightning.

As I left Beirut the next morning in a convoy of four taxis filled with fleeing Americans, stopping at my luxury hotel where the obsequious staff continued to serve tea and pastries, undeterred by the fighting outside, the city had turned into a battle zone.  Only young men armed with Kalashnikovs roamed the streets on motorcycles while others stood guard at entrances to their neighborhoods.  Zigzagging through roadblocks past prime minister Sinoria’s house, I cursed myself for going to retrieve my belongings at the hotel and sent up a thankful prayer once we reached the safety of campus.  As we drove to Tripoli, having decided to cross the Syrian border from the north rather than take the far shorter route through Hezbollah territory, I couldn’t help but marvel at the uncomplicated politics the American media offered its citizens.  It was a talk-show version of multicultural democracy where every topic had two equally valid sides which kept the citizenry smug. No messiness, no violence. Only smooth capitalist democracy in action.

But here in the Middle East, borders were being violently policed. Balking at the burning tyres blocking the Syrian border at Tripoli, our driver had demanded his money and asked to return to Beirut, a request we had spurned for our own survival, promising to pay him only in Damascus.  At the border, chaos reigned supreme. Hundreds of Syrian workers, terrified at the prospect of a replay of reprisals against Syrians as had happened after Hariri’s assassination, massed at the border.  Many had traveled miles on foot, carrying an occasional suitcase or a bundle of possessions and planned to walk a few more miles upon entering Syria.  Impatient with the hours of waiting for their exit stamps, they surged ahead as Lebanese police pushed them back with sticks. Every few minutes, a few would make a dash across the border only to be chased by soldiers and tossed back into the crowd.  Only the harsh sounds of police firing into the air staved off the restive crowd.  Meanwhile we, the fleeing Americans bypassed the crowd and joined the long line of VIPs getting their passports stamped.  We, in our taxis, inching across the Syrian border late that afternoon, with scarcely any food or water, were the fortunate ones.  The mass of Syrian workers, walking across the border with their belongings piled on their heads were not.

While I made it back to Atlanta, taking the scenic route home via Dubai, Israeli jets flew over Beirut while the USS Battleship Cole moved ominously in plain sight of the city.  Lebanon might be the banking mecca of the world next to Switzerland, host to the flows of capital, but its  borders were frightening and vulnerable.  I, on the other hand, was going to be embraced by the vast multitude of America.  Or so it seemed. As I sat in the special interrogation room at Atlanta airport, finding around me all brown men of possibly Middle Eastern or South Asian lineage, it was clear that America’s borders were being policed by the most ludicrous racial profiling, one that could not even support the State’s own ill-conceived agenda on “terror.” Presumably a white Hezbollah supporter could slip through.  On the other hand, the Sri Lankan domestic working for a Lebanese would likely, in an ironic exchange of status from disdained to despised, be detained. I had entered the borderless world of neoliberalism where the only smooth flows were those of capital.

MALINI JOHAR SCHUELLER is a professor at the department of English at the University of Florida where she teaches courses on American literature culture. She is the author of U.S. Orientalisms and most recently, “Exceptional State: Contemporary US Culture and the New Imperialism,” published by Duke University Press in June 2007.
and of the forthcoming book, Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship.

 

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