Out of Breath
Statements from a round-table discussion between four Lebanese artists and intellectuals
Walid Sadek/Karl Sharro/Tony Chakar/Bilal Khbeiz
At springerin’s initiative, four Lebanese artists and intellectuals met in Beirut for a round-table discussion, excerpts from which are published here:
Walid Sadek, Karl Sharro, Tony Chakar and Bilal Khbeiz
give their views on the various attitudes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have developed on the Lebanese side following the war in Lebanon, on the complex historical status of Palestinians in the region, and on the various liberation scenarios that take account of this complexity.
Walid Sadek: It seems to me these days that many ideas we hold true are being challenged as a result of developments in Palestine. Ideas which we had deemed coherent, even obvious, are now timid and belated. Accordingly, I would like to approach and offer a primary articulation of what may in the future be understood as the »ideas of the defeated.«
This may be a critical moment - as all moments never cease to be - a moment when critical tools ought to be evaluated anew and yet another effort be made to search for another set of possibilities. In Lebanon, we seem out of breath. After months of daring to question the Syrians in their presence in Lebanon and of raising the tone and tenor of critique at this neighbouring Arab state, and after months of diligently observing the Palestinians in their latest struggle against Israeli occupation and of trying to locate some way of assuming responsibility, least of which in the refraction of those events on local Lebanese politics, we stand today a little intrigued and befuddled before the growing and advancing possibility of a Palestinian state, and concurrently, before the compelling resistance offered by men and women whose lives suddenly appeared irreplaceable.
As the project of a Palestinian state, built as it is on sacrifices, looms larger, an important detail imposes itself on the mind of participants and observers alike. The Palestinian state is not only an end to a ruthless Israeli occupation but also, and perhaps more importantly, an irrevocable ingress into the world. And this is precisely what is usually reversed in neighbouring Arab states where presence is usually achieved at the cost of the absence of individuals who pursue their lives, as they may, and search for their own individual presence in the world through a forced exile, whether physical and actual or intellectual and covert. Those individuals often find themselves, in their forced exile, within a tradition which posits the individual as primarily a subject-in-relation-with-God. And one of the results of this subject position is to slowly disengage oneself from the world and to look at life as a temporary passage, in a mixture of pity and disgust which haughtily declares that the world must be changed.
What the Palestinians have accomplished in some of their sacrifices is to bind the state as a condition with the condition of the individual in its innocence. The resistants in Jenin, men and women - (although one must be weary of mystification) - died before being signalled as a martyr; and that is the crucial difference. Their death was registered not only as an event worthy of the world’s attention, but as a death that cannot be avoided and therefore as a massacre. And to be massacred in today’s world is for the international community to recognise you as human first. Such is the violence and irony of world affairs but that is also the crucial difference that is Jenin. Those Palestinians died as individuals and therefore died as innocents do; until then an attribute that is usually monopolised and given exclusively to Israelis who have never ceased to insist that they are individual citizens in a nation with a »defence army«(!) And if Jenin appears, after the last round of unequal combat, as a proof a Palestinian state preceding its actual legal implementation, then it also signals the state as the guarantor of the humanity of people and of their ability to die before they are martyred.
As I speak of innocence I certainly am not referring to a kind of an a priori religious or vaguely human innocence. For, simply said, such an innocence is an ideal that those who decide to live in the fabric of the world have no access to. To enter the world is a decision to abandon such an innocence, which is the private domain of those who only live outside the world, that is, those who consider living as a cumbersome and weary immersion in the matter of this world, and death as a euphoric liberation euphoria unequalled by any living. Such an innocence is actually an innocence that disengages from the world, although in all fairness one must concede that if it is necessary to challenge and critique such an innocence, it is nevertheless true that the world as we live it is unfair, even crushing.
Rather, the innocence I am trying to formulate is that which Palestinians have linked to the state as a condition. It is a legal innocence, as it is an individualising factor through which we acquire our individuality and our membership in this world. This is an innocence which gives us a permit to labour in this world and to construct its history. And, therefore, to take the life of such an individual is a transgression on the world and a disparagement to its total humanity. This innocence of the individual is that which gives him the right to draw his own beginning and the right to re-start as he wishes - (although it may not give him the right to be absent from the world). This last notion recapitulates an important change in human laws which have become like »rules of a game.« A change which marks a departure from an earlier legal framework which, although it did organise and regulate human affairs, did little more than merely banish those who disrupt or disobey its rules. As for the law/game, it presupposes a consenting participation to the principles of the game and its internal checks and balances. For modern law is able, as Hannah Arendt says, to protect what property a previous felon has recently acquired. Whereas in Palestine a resistant is still always a terrorist, and nothing but, disallowed from owning property as he is barred from acquiring a life, let alone an opinion; and his death, or martyrdom preferably, is a proffered act of mercy on his indelibly flawed life and an added security to the rest of the world.
Accordingly, it is relevant to ask at this point why is it that when we demand a democratic secular state we seem as if we are banishing ourselves from this country?
Karl Sharro: The Palestinian cause gives rise to intense feelings among the Lebanese, ranging from sympathy and understanding to distrust and hostility. These feelings find different expressions, not only on the level of everyday conversation, but also in public articulations and political statements, and which expose sharp divisions among Lebanese communities. This shows that these communities are still not capable of formulating a consensual discourse that builds on the experiences of the civil war and the post-war period with a shared Lebanese assessment and outlook.
Ranging from sympathy to hostility, these feelings and expressions are linked to two different attitudes to the Palestinians and their cause that are, on the one hand, a continuation of the civil-war mindset, and on the other, expressions of the different cultural identities of the various Lebanese communities, and the way these communities construct these identities vis-à-vis the Palestinian identity.
Despite the obvious disparity between the conditions of sympathy and hostility that the Lebanese discourse expresses towards the Palestinians, these attitudes are similar in that they tend to look upon the Palestinians in an »abstract« manner, one which reduces the Palestinian to a fixed identity, and not with any other meaning that a Palestinian can find for his or her own existence.
These attitudes of looking upon the Palestinians often lead to dehumanising them, not only in how they are perceived and categorised, but also in how they are dealt with socially and politically. This dehumanisation manifests itself in extreme expressions, of hostility and of sympathy, both in daily conversation and in public political discourse.
In a prevalent attitude, the Palestinians are considered as the vanguard of the struggle with Israel, which is perceived as part of a Western scheme whose target is to maintain a foothold in this part of the Arab world in order to advance its imperialist goals. This simplistic understanding of Zionism and its political, economic and cultural dimensions transforms the Palestinians into defenders of the Arabic and Islamic symbols that are geographically located inside Palestine, and attaches the essential meaning of the Palestinian identity to this protective and defensive function.
This defensive function assumes an almost mythological dimension that is correlated with the different expressions of the Palestinian identity. Consequently, any attempts at finding alternative political or cultural expressions for this identity are considered less important than this essential function and can therefore be discredited or regarded with suspicion. The project for establishing an independent Palestinian state on part of the land of historical Palestine, which allows the Palestinian to become a citizen in his or her own country, is then regarded as a compromising project that cannot be reconciled with the mythological requirements of the Palestinian identity.
The concept of martyrdom is one manifestation of this prevalent outlook towards the Palestinians. Any Palestinian victim is referred to as »shaheed,« or martyr, even if he or she was killed without willingly participating in the conflict. The »shaheed« is elevated to a mythological status that is considered a fulfilment of the Palestinian’s existential role. The loss of life is not classified as a human loss, but rather as a gain and a contribution towards the requirements of the Palestinian »warrior« identity.
The willing martyr, »istishhadi,« acquires an even more elevated status. Seeking death then becomes a desirable endeavour, and it is not perceived as abandoning life, but rather as a culmination of it. According to this outlook, the Palestinians are considered living martyrs, whose existential role is only fulfilled through martyrdom. Consequently, any attempts at formulating alternative existential mechanisms for the Palestinian individual are considered heretical.
In conjunction with the seemingly sympathetic, and almost mythical, attitude towards the Palestinians, there is another attitude among the Lebanese, one that is hostile to the Palestinians and to the different expressions of their cause. This attitude is partially an extension of the civil war divisions and the role of the armed Palestinian organisations in it, as it is also closely linked to the way in which the Lebanese identity has been historically constructed.
This attitude does not only express hostility towards the Palestinians, but also depreciates them using a moral model that reproduces simplistic versions of the Palestinian history, the Palestinian struggle, and the Palestinian political and cultural identity that can be condemned on absolutist moral grounds. Thus, the Palestinians are accused of having abandoned their country willingly, or of seeking to establish alternative countries in different places, and other similar accusations that lead to simplistic readings of the Palestinians and their political motivations. The use of this moral model allows the Palestinians to be dehumanised in order to prevent sympathy towards them, and precludes analytical readings of their struggle.
This hostile attitude towards the Palestinians is related in some of its aspects to a particular conception of Lebanon as a nation/shelter in which oppressed minorities could find refuge from hostile powers. This conception relied on historical minority migrations to Lebanon to establish a mythical role for Lebanon as a shelter for the oppressed. The Lebanese identity was then reinforced by this role that makes Lebanon distinctive from the countries around it. In this conception of Lebanon as the nation/shelter, the attachment to the land becomes a virtue and a Lebanese characteristic.
According to this conception, the superficial contradictions between the Lebanese and the Palestinians become evident. Firstly, the Palestinians are thought to have given their land up easily, in contrast to how the Lebanese have historically defended their land, and consequently they become morally inferior to the Lebanese. Secondly, the Palestinians are considered to have tried to expel the Lebanese from their own land in order to establish an alternative Palestinian state in Lebanon.
This particular reading of the Lebanese war is still widely accepted, and according to it, the Palestinian attempt failed because of the justified Lebanese resistance, a resistance that legitimised all means employed. Incidentally, this perception has so far prevented any questioning of the atrocities that were committed during the civil war, as it postponed the necessary task of determining the moral responsibilities that the different parties should be held accountable for.
The hostile attitude towards the Palestinians in not only founded on the Palestinian involvement in the civil war then, but also on how the general characteristics of the perceived Palestinian identity are contrasted with those of the perceived Lebanese identity. It is no coincidence that the first signs of sympathy towards the Palestinians among those who traditionally thought of them as invaders occurred around the time of the first Intifada. The images of the Palestinians fighting their occupiers on their own land presented for some the obvious association with their own condition, and an important change in direction from the near past.
However, this alone was not, and is still not enough to win for the Palestinians the sympathy of all the Lebanese. How could we explain this attitude given the change of tactics that the Palestinian struggle took and that made it represent the Palestinian identity along more favourable terms to the Lebanese people?
One answer can also be found in one other way in which the Lebanese identity is constructed, namely, on the idea of Lebanon as an oasis, both literally and figuratively. In this conception, Lebanon’s distinctive characteristics, which distinguish it from countries around it - geographic, social and cultural - are used to reinforce the Lebanese identity based on these differences. This myth was used partially as a form of defence against the intrusions of an overwhelming Arab identity that continuously threatened to engulf Lebanon. The perception of the Palestinians as part of that Arab identity, rather than as a people with their own independent identity, still sustains the hostility towards them among part of the Lebanese and prevents a genuine change in attitude towards them from taking hold.
However, both these attitudes have been challenged continuously since the beginning of the Intifada. As the Palestinian identity is being shaped and re-asserted, and is emerging as an independent national identity, it is upsetting these long-held attitudes. An attitude of genuine understanding is taking hold, and it is linked to the way in which the Palestinian identity is being shaped. Hopefully, it is providing a lesson for how the Lebanese identity can also be re-shaped by dealing with realities and not with myths.
In this sense, can you see if and how this very limited and often misconceived solidarity, or at least this complex entanglement with the Palestinians can turn into a viable involvement on which it is possible to build?
Tony Chakar: After the Jenin camp massacres, the university where I teach decided to give its students the afternoon off so that they could participate, if they wished, in a demonstration in support of the Palestinian people. An exceptional decision by all standards: the university is located within the »Christian suburbs« of Beirut, and 80% of its students are Christians; in addition, it’s an »École des beaux-arts« - the first in Lebanon and probably the most conservative politically. This decision was met by a very heated discussion during my morning class, where some students expressed what seemed to be long-forgotten anxieties: »Why should we help them? Aren’t they the ones who started the war and ruined Lebanon?«; also, »But our country is occupied too! So we should take care of our own problems first«; and so on. Indeed, why should ›we‹ help ›them‹? But then again, why is it also that almost everyone in Lebanon does have an opinion about what’s going on in Palestine? Is it because of the geographic proximity? Because of the war in Lebanon and the Palestinians’ involvement in it? Is it out of care for our »Arab brethren«?
The Arab-Israeli struggle is not new, and all the reasons above were used to explain what seems to be unexplainable. In 1975 Lebanon went to war against itself because of this issue: should we retreat from this Israeli-Palestinian struggle and devote our valuable time to making more money and enjoying our prosperity, or should we be on the front line with the Palestinians? All the problems and divisions of the country seemed to crystallise around that issue. And after 15 years of war, an Israeli invasion and 10 years of peace, the Lebanese still haven’t made up their minds. I personally still don’t know why I have these cramps in my stomach when I see yet another Palestinian civilian beaten up and humiliated by the Israeli army, and why I choked with emotions upon hearing of the heroic resistance in the Jenin camp. Maybe it’s the broken bones - an existential question, as Sartre quoted by Adorno put it: »Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?«
So, is supporting the Palestinian cause a way to find out the meaning of life? Is that it? The Lebanese Left of the 1960’s and 70’s had a clear and simple answer: We are one [Arab} nation, we were divided by the colonial imperialist forces into artificial countries with artificial borders, by those same imperialist forces who also created Israel as a colonial outpost to further this nation’s divisions. The Islamists substitute »Muslims« for »Arab« and »Ummah« for »nation,« and go on rambling. Who said that life should be complicated? But isn’t it this lack of complication which led to considering the Palestinian refugees as one »warrior mass« whose existence becomes meaningless if not in a perpetual state of revolution and war? Isn’t that the profound cause of considering all the Palestinians who remained in what is now Israel as traitors, only because they dared have a normal life? Isn’t that what led to the appalling conditions of the Palestinian population in the refugee camps? And finally, isn’t it hypocritical, even cowardly, to want to use the Palestinians as a fuel for a total Arab revolution that will most likely never come?
So if we proceed by elimination, we can scratch off the »we are all Arabs« theory. It doesn’t work anymore - actually it never did work, and the Palestinians are the ones who are the most acutely aware of this fact. So why should we help them then? Is it because we’re close? Big deal - Cyprus is very close, and nobody here knows what goes on there; better yet: Israel is even closer, but it’s not tomorrow that we’ll see people demonstrating in the streets of Beirut out of empathy with the Israeli civilians. In times like these I wish I were a Palestinian. A Palestinian would know the answer: we fight or we die. No alternatives. As for the rest of us in this region, who do not have the privilege of a European who supports the Palestinian cause out of humanism, or of a pan-Arabist or an Islamist nut who have been repeating their mantras for decades now, we do what we can and we struggle with our questions.
Maybe it’s this glimpse of knowledge that will save us. The knowledge that everything is connected. That all the problematics of this Levant, from the confiscation of all the civil rights of the Syrian citizens by the Syrian regime, to its occupation of Lebanon - all in the name of the »Strategic Interests in the War against the Zionist Enemy« - all revolve around and are raised by the Palestinian cause. Also, the absence of democracy in Israel to its invasion of Lebanon and occupation of the Palestinian land as the strange theory developed by the PLO and its allies in the 70’s, that the road to Jerusalem passes through Jounieh, a Christian town north of Beirut, to the massacres of Shatila and Sabra, perpetrated by the Israeli Defence Army and its Lebanese allies in the 80’s - all are connected and revolve around the Palestinian issue. Not to forget the fact that the Lebanese politician responsible for these crimes became a deputy and then a minister, and later got killed by »unknown criminals.« All this carries questions that ought not be asked, let alone answered, because »no voice is louder than the voice of the battle.«
But now again, the Palestinians set the pace: even after all the Israeli atrocities on Palestinian land. For even in the midst of the last battle of independence on this planet, they decided to deeply review all their governmental structures and to hold free elections, something that the Lebanese still haven’t achieved after the war in a supposedly free nation, not to mention how surreal such a proposition may sound in Syria or Jordan, in itself something which managed to bring a war criminal to power in Israel.
In the end we seem to hang all our failures and lacks on the Palestinians while they seem to be doing OK - better than all the peoples of this region. It is enough to makes one wonder who needs help after all?
Bilal Khbeiz: In 1982 Lebanon and the Palestinians fought the first impossible Arab war. They fought a war that did not take place because, even though an Arab capital was occupied, nothing changed in the Arab but a timid and dutiful reaction after the massacre of Sabra and Shatila camps. The most vocal commentary came from Syria, which has a geographic contiguity with Lebanon and an overwhelming control over its »destiny,« blaming the Palestinian fighters for leaving their people defenceless in the camps, to be slaughtered like sheep.
The occupation of an Arab capital left little trace. Some of the Lebanese were among those who cheered and welcomed this occupation. There is an view which says that this country should be reshuffled and reconstituted along lines tailored for those who fight over it and interfere in its affairs. This view implies that the country has not come of age yet. Or, otherwise, how do some Lebanese, the Arabs and the world think it possible to reorganise Lebanese demography? And how would this reorganisation go by unnoticed and not draw wide attention from the world?
There was in the Lebanon of the late 1960’s a so-called Cairo agreement that organised the armed Palestinian resistance on the Israeli-Lebanese border. But it quickly developed and transformed the whole country into a border zone targeted by Israeli bombings and repeated aggressions. From one extremity to the other, Lebanon became a border zone, with no interior where the frightened could take shelter and no »red lines« that defended its capital from occupation. We know that Lebanon was not the only country that gave its livelihood and sacrificed its affairs in defence of the greatest Arabic cause, that of the Palestinian. Egypt fought four wars while Syria fought three official ones. Jordan fought two wars and one civil war that nearly ruined it. So Lebanon is not unique in that respect. But what makes it unique is that it never succeeded in fighting the war on its border in accordance with conventional military scenarios. On the contrary, the wars always started in the capital and then retreated towards the border.
This is why Lebanon seems to be most sensitive in its relationship with the Palestinian cause. Some Lebanese are saying, and have been saying for years, that this country is a people divided, a land violated, and a sovereignty uncompleted, and that it deserves the same attention that the Palestinians deserve in their struggle to attain their legitimate rights. For who would dare to ask the Palestinians, past, present and future, to defend with their lives and livelihoods Iraq or Kuwait, for example? Some of the Lebanese think that their cause is as important as that of the Palestinians, and perhaps even greater and more tragic. What’s more, the Palestinians themselves contributed largely to compounding Lebanese suffering. And so it is important to remember that the Lebanese civil war was not a mere division between the Lebanese on two opposing slogans, the first calling for an unconditional support for the armed Palestinian resistance, and for opening the Lebanese interior for the sake of liberating Palestine and revolutionising the whole Arab situation, while the second called for separating Lebanon from the Middle East crisis, because it does not have the resources or the capacity to afford a large scale war.
In both cases, and in the light of these two slogans, the Lebanese were not divided between those who sought a secondary role for the country and the nation and those who aspired to an expansionist role that goes beyond the narrow Lebanese border to the neighbouring countries. For Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East whose people never desired, either publicly or secretly, to annex the territory of a neighbouring country. Even Jordan was capable of claiming the dream of reuniting the Hashemite kingdom whenever it wanted. Even the banished Palestinians themselves aspired to establish a semblance of a provisional state in Lebanon. We must always remember that the Palestinian cause is discussed in Lebanon according to two main aspects: the first concerned with supporting the Palestinians in their struggle against the occupation, and the second concerned with the role that the Palestinians played in destabilising the country.
The Palestinian cause here is indescribably complex. That is why we will witness support to the Palestinians from all over the world before we succeed in carrying a picture of the Palestinian president publicly in a large demonstration.
This is a characteristic that should be taken into consideration. For without it, it would be difficult to understand how the spilled blood, the destroyed livelihood and the martyrs could be Lebanese with the Syrian president as a leader of the »Ummah« (or pan-Arab/Islamic nation) and of the resistance simultaneously. South Lebanon was liberated at exorbitant costs in human suffering. But the victory, when it was allowed to be declared, was exclusively Syrian.
This odd situation would have been unbelievable had it not been for three reasons:
- the secondary role of Lebanon as a nation and the impossibility of its assuming an expansionist role
- the contraction of the interior and the expansion of the border, transforming the capital itself into a open war zone
- the disregard of the people and rulers of Lebanon for feasible struggles while shouldering on the other hand impossible wars.
All the Arab wars did take place except that which pegged Lebanon in the face of Israel. For a decade spanning the 1980’s, the Lebanese National Resistance fought the Israelis but remained occulted. Only when Hizbollah took on the resistance against the Israelis did that war became recognised. In other words, it became an important issue as the resistance aligned itself with regional, and not necessarily national, interests.
The Palestinians also suffer what the Lebanese suffered. The Israeli project is extremely violent towards them and more than it is towards any other Arab nation. The Palestinians have also paid for their independence with their blood as they did for their right to lead their own negotiations and to make their own decisions. Most probably, this would not have been possible if some of the Arab states were still willing to enter into war with Israel. Today we hear some Arabs calling for a return to the principles of Madrid. But does anyone make the effort of asking what these principles of Madrid are? If we remember correctly, a Palestinian delegation annexed to a Jordanian one and the flagrant Arabic acceptance of the absence of a Palestinian independent voice. Of course, that is no embarrassment for Arabs, especially as the Palestinians are considered weak. This assumption still seems to govern. In a scandalous attempt at sending the Palestinians back to what they were a decade ago, Arafat was not allowed to deliver directly his speech to those meeting in Beirut for the Arab summit. He, a leader, a former speaker at the United Nations, and once a primary member of the nations of non-alignment, was barred from speaking in Beirut. Are these the principles of Madrid some are calling for?
At the risk of some exaggerations, one can claim that the Palestinians have gone beyond those scenarios which say that they ought to delegate their cause and struggle to Arab leaders no matter what support is promised. Firstly, because the Arabs are unable to equal the Palestinians’ insistence on demanding the implementation of UN resolutions. And yet those who have read Yose Sareed lately realise just how much Palestinian blood will yet have to be spilled before those Israelis who do call for peace will finally let go of the presumption that they are to decide on the form and type of the future Palestinian state. The day Sharon was elected prime minister, peace advocates in Israel blamed the Palestinian authority and placed the responsibility for future consequences on its shoulders. The Palestinians assumed that responsibility and were slaughtered in Jenin and Nablus. And yet Israeli leaders of peace advocates maintained their self-declared prerogative to decide on the relevance of Arafat and of whether it is still worthy to negotiate with him. What peace is this when foes decide who to negotiate with and how to negotiate?
In this regard Palestinians will probably have to suffer more before the world is convinced to let them run their own affairs. And yet they probably have travelled half way, while the Lebanese are still at the beginning.
Karl Sharro 2002
First published in Springerin: http://www.springerin.at in English and in German.