Friday, August 31, 2012

March 14 Youth stages a comeback

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

There were only a few dozen people at the Universite Saint Joseph car park at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, and for 15 minutes it looked as though the planned March 14 Youth rally was going to be a disaster. But then they began arriving—by the car, the jeep and the busload. One after another, hundreds of students from the Lebanese Forces (LF), the Future Movement, the Kataeb, al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah and the National Liberal Party (NLP) began beeping horns, waving flags and chanting. While the ostensible purpose of the rally was to call for the resignation of Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour and the expulsion of Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdel-Karim Ali, it was also a flexing of muscles for the March 14 parties themselves.

“God, [Lebanese] Forces, Doctor [Samir Geagea] and nothing else!” went the LF students, prompting al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah to retort, “There is no God but Allah!” Nearby, a circle of Future students chanted, “Saad [Hariri], Saad” and “God protect you, Free Syria Army!” Posters bore such slogans as “How long will our prisoners be in Syrian jails?” and “Respect Us or Leave.”

After marching down Ashrafieh’s Charles Malik Street, the 1,000-plus crowd gathered outside the Foreign Ministry and began by singing the national anthem. “We’ve had enough of always being ruled by Syria,” a Kataeb student, Karim, told NOW Lebanon. “Not only the ambassador, but the entire criminal Syrian regime has to go,” said Ahmad of the Future Movement. Various student leaders gave speeches, while MPs including Future’s Ahmad Fatfat, the Kataeb’s Nadim Gemayel and NLP’s Dory Chamoun shook hands and gave interviews.

The rally comes at what may be an auspicious time for the opposition bloc, as its incumbent rivals are increasingly squeezed by events in neighboring Syria. Since the surprise arrest of former minister and tight Damascus ally Michel Samaha on August 9, and the subsequent official charging of him along with Syrian National Security head General Ali Mamluk with plotting “terror attacks,” key pillars of the government—from President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Najib Miqati down—appear to be distancing themselves somewhat from the Assad regime. Even the defiantly pro-Assad Hezbollah leadership has reportedly been having private doubts about the relationship.

These unprecedented developments have left some analysts questioning whether March 14 is effectively rising to the occasion. “March 14’s response to the situation in Syria has been quite uneven and heterogeneous, which is a reflection of the state of the political alliance,” said Elias Muhanna, assistant professor at Brown University and author of the Qifa Nabki blog. “Some members have been looking for direct ways to weaken March 8, while others are taking a more cautious approach. Certainly there is a lot of apprehension about the fallout of a regime change in Syria. We're certainly not witnessing the same degree of enthusiasm to spearhead an international pressure campaign against the Assad government from Beirut, as we saw in 2005-07,” he told NOW by email.

Al-Hayat columnist Hazem Saghieh, too, feels that March 14’s response to events has been lacking. “Regarding the Samaha case, I think March 14 should insist on extending the affair, on using it as an entrance to investigating everything which has happened in Lebanon lately,” he told NOW. “Also, they should be more insistent regarding the treatment of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This is a political, moral and human cause which should not be dealt with half-heartedly.”

However, Muhanna also argued that their comparative inaction may pay dividends later. “In a sense […] this more cautious approach has worked to the advantage of Syria’s enemies in Lebanon. It almost seems as if the Future Movement has taken a page from Hezbollah’s playbook by sitting in the opposition, staying out of the limelight, and allowing the geopolitics to do the talking.”

Saghieh, too, cautions against an overreaction on March 14’s part. “I don’t think it’s wise to call for the resignation of the government now. Without wanting to describe the government as efficient, we need something; we need the bare minimum to keep peace. Peace is very fragile in Lebanon, and the removal of this government would not help anyone.”

If March 14 is to truly capitalize on the potential rewards of a weakened or even vanquished Damascus, Saghieh adds, it may need to reinvent itself fundamentally. The bloc is held back by “their lack of dynamism, and the way they conceive politics as something related to elections only,” he said. “Theoretically, they can gain a lot, but practically the question is are they going to invest, do they know how to deal with the changes?”

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Left and the Non-Benign Movement

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

There isn’t one leftist in Lebanon who doesn’t know to snicker at Walid Jumblatt’s pretensions to “progressive socialism.” So it was truly an irony that he alone should have made the morally obvious point that this week’s Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran is a congregation, not of courageous and downtrodden freedom fighters, but of some of the most diabolically reactionary, fascistic and blood-drenched despots on the planet.

Pointing to the presence of a Damascus representative in particular, the old Soviet ally impugned “Arab leaders who [are] sitting alongside those who represent a bulwark against the rights of the Syrian people and their epic struggle.”

It is indeed dismaying to watch the “revolutionaries” of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, not to mention the Palestinian leadership, linking fraternal arms with every bigot and butcher from Marrakesh to Muscat. Not that the shame is confined to the Arab world – hands have been warmly extended to the dictatorships of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe too, inter multa alia.

Yet the elephant in the room is of course the host state itself; the inimitable Islamic Republic of Iran. This dysfunctional regime may not be the Third Reich that its rivals unceasingly tell us it is, but it certainly keeps human rights NGOs in business: hundreds of executions, sometimes of children; floggings and amputations for lesser criminals; routine use of torture; de jure second-class citizenship for women, minorities and homosexuals; imprisonment of political rivals, including the head of the opposition, Mir Hossein Mousavi; and zero free speech. And that’s just in 2012.

Not that one would hear a word about this from the Lebanese left – a left that is not usually coy about its grievances. The same activists that denounce rock concerts in Tel Aviv as “whitewashing” Israeli apartheid are apparently unperturbed by the Iranian state media eulogizing the “poetic justice” of “the majority of the world […] standing with Iran” at this week’s summit in the face of the “heinous criminality” of the West. “So long vilified by Washington and its quislings, Iran is now being vindicated by the rest of the world,” it gloats.

Not In My Name, thank you very much.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Free Lebanese Army?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Though rejected by the Sunni establishment, the idea is endorsed by extremists.

Sunni fighters on the ground in Bab al-Tabbaneh on Wednesday (AFP)
Following a week of pronounced anxieties in Lebanon brought on by the kidnapping of 20 Syrians and a Turkish national by the self-described “military wing” of the influential Shiite Moqdad clan, Tuesday’s reports of the formation of a “Sunni military council” by a prominent Tripoli Salafist—echoing calls in May for the creation of a “Free Lebanese Army”—had many in the country fearing the worst.

Those fears now look to have been somewhat misplaced, as Sheikh Salem al-Rafei—the cleric said to have announced the formation during his Friday sermon—appears to have backtracked amid near-unanimous condemnation of the idea from the Sunni establishment. “All of the officials and sons of Tripoli reject the idea of forming military councils,” said Future bloc MP Mohammad Kabbara on Wednesday after discussing the issue with Rafei. Similarly, the Tripoli mufti, Sheikh Malek Shaar, categorically ruled it out on Friday, while Future bloc MP Ahmad Fatfat called Thursday for “turning Tripoli into an arms-free city.” Rafei himself declined to talk to NOW Lebanon about the matter, though he has told NOW in the past that he too advocates an arms-free Tripoli.

At the same time, some of the more hardline Sunni Islamists have openly and enthusiastically endorsed the idea. Despite telling NOW in June that he opposed all non-state weapons, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, the former UK leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir and founder of Salafist-Jihadist outfits al-Muhajiroun and Islam4UK, now says, “I support the establishment of a military council for the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh […] not just in the North, but in the wider region. Everyone has weapons in Lebanon: the Internal Security Forces, the army, Hezbollah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Palestinians. It is only the Sunnis who are without arms. So when Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir’s demands [to rid the country of non-state weapons] were not met, we had to say that we will arm ourselves in return.”

When contacted for comment, Assir was equivocal, ostensibly rejecting the military council idea while not materially differing from Bakri’s position. “In no way are we creating a military council, nor do we approve of it,” he told NOW. “What Rafei meant was that in case the government cannot protect us, we will have to take measures to protect ourselves.”

Bakri made no such evasions. Asked to explain how the council would function in practice, he asserted its activities would not be aggressive. “It will not be formed to face a certain group or party but only for self-defense and as a contingency in the event of an attack. We have seen the army’s failure to carry out its duty of putting an end to the [Moqdad] kidnappings. Also consider that Syrian tanks are shelling our borders and are entering certain areas constantly and making arrests. The military council is a reaction and is not an organization or party, nor does it aim to replace the state or the army.”

Sheikh Nabil Rahim, who was arrested in 2008 on charges of belonging to Fatah al-Islam, essentially agreed with Bakri, although he claimed that Rafei’s original proposal was non-sectarian. “I listened to the statements of Sheikh Rafei, and he said there should be a military council for all sects, including Shiites, Christians and Sunnis. We are with the state and the army, but this is in self-defense in case they cannot provide protection for their citizens,” he told NOW.

In any case, for actual fighters on the ground in Tripoli, these debates may be largely academic. A Sunni militiaman from the Qobbeh neighborhood who preferred not to be named scoffed when asked about the military council, dismissing it as a rhetorical retort to the “military wing” of the Moqdads. Though Rafei is held in high esteem in Tripoli, and could certainly mobilize militants if he wished, the idea of a formally structured paramilitary outfit for all Sunnis in Lebanon was fantasy, he told NOW.

Moreover, as the tragic re-eruptions of violence in the city over the past week have amply demonstrated, the Sunnis of Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh have already had a de facto militia for quite some time. In the words of the Qobbeh fighter, “What difference does it make if we call it a ‘military council’ now?”

Bassem Nemeh, Assem Bazzi and Nadine Elali contributed reporting.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In denial? Just blame atheists

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Pat Robertson, the veteran Baptist televangelist, is blaming atheism for the Wisconsin massacre (Source:

No week is exactly a “good” week for atheists: a group so universally disliked that the American public would sooner elect a Muslim or gay president. Yet this week may be worse than most.

In addition to being blamed for Nazism, Stalinism, natural disasters and global chaos in general, it appears that we are even being indicted for Sunday’s tragic massacre in Wisconsin.

Pat Robertson, the Baptist televangelist, who readers may remember for blaming 9/11 on secularists, has come out with an equally inventive explanation for the Wisconsin atrocity. The culprits, he speculated, were “people who are atheists; they hate God, they hate the expression of God, and they are angry with the world, angry with themselves, angry with society, and they take it out on innocent people who are worshipping God.”

How is one to respond decently to this slander? I suppose it would be in poor taste to note that Wade M. Page, the actual perpetrator of the Wisconsin massacre, had a large cross tattooed on his shoulder, and seemed to be motivated more than anything else by white supremacist ideology, whose relations with the Church have a long and very unpleasant history.

Not that I’m suggesting Page’s motive was religious. But I’d argue that the kind of person who is thinking of murdering for a racial cause is likely to become more, rather than less determined if he believes the Almighty will approve. To throw the charge of this fanaticism back at those who dispute the whole God hypothesis in the first place is not only a base shirking of moral and intellectual honesty, but a transparent symptom of denial.

She's no philistine

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

I have to begin with a confession. When I sat down to read Atrium, the debut release of the 26-year-old Palestinian-American poet Hala Alyan, I didn’t have the highest hopes. It was going to be a formulaic rehash of the familiar tropes, I decided: A railing against patriarchy here, a riff about imperialist hegemony there. Perhaps a paean at some point to the stoic wisdom of the olive tree.

Events, however, didn’t go to plan. Over the course of the proceeding hour, Alyan chewed up my arrogant, sexist, Orientalist prejudices and ceremoniously spat them down my trembling, humiliated face. And she did it with style. For Atrium is, in fact, a formidable volume: irreverent, clever, hyper-erudite and laugh-out-loud funny, with moments of arresting darkness and disturbing intensity to boot. Whether it’s Greek mythology, nightclub culture, obscene sex acts or Beirut, there is scarcely one subject in these 88 pages to which Alyan doesn’t bring fierce originality, feeling and flair [Disclosure: I am a slight acquaintance of hers].

Take these lines from “Scarlett O’Hara at the Nightclub,” an unsettling reflection on the one-night-stand: “My newly waxed legs/ emerge from the sequins/ of this tiny dress […] In the bathroom,/ women huddle/ like grazing things […] Like origami, I garlanded myself./ Met you with my bones. I forget that sometimes,/ remember only the fog, the scuff/ your shoes left in the foyer./ Remember only the dead moon of cigar ash./ Your bastard exit.”

That description of sex as a meeting of bones betrays an almost Larkinesque morbidity. In an email exchange, Alyan told NOW Extra that her “unease” about today’s youth culture was a muse of sorts. “For all things romantic, I think the unrequited can be a fertile ground for creative expression. There can be something fragile, even damaged, about certain aspects of youth culture, and I think it is important to draw attention to it.”

Not that Alyan is a mere lugubrious brooder. More upbeat is “Pandora,” perhaps the shortest poem, and the funniest: “i./ When you sin,/ you go to church./ Cut your hair and watch French films./ Drink nothing/ but tea for/ an entire winter./ ii./ I just wash my sheets.”

Part of what makes Atrium such a refreshing read is its utter lack of the sentimental or saccharine. Alyan actually writes, in “Gemini,” “I think/ sometimes/ it is better to say the/ essence, to say, simply, the sky is beautiful today […] instead of reaching always for the poetry.” As she elaborated to NOW: “There was a time, in my teens, when I began to metaphorically frown upon what I considered to be ‘sappy’ […] And that evolved into something more organic over the years, so nowadays I’m drawn to poetry (whether I’m reading it or writing it) that has some degree of distance, or even cynicism, but still manages to excavate a certain veracity.”

At the same time, when she does “reach for the poetry,” the results are quite astonishing. Her command of metaphor, for example, is superlative. From “Taurus”: “You know this earth will please you:/ hills mauve-lipped, vaginal,/ rivers bruised with tiny flowers.”

Moreover, as with all good poets, Alyan takes an evident delight in words themselves: toying with them; inventing them. In “Barbie,” she nicknames the doll her “cuntless confidante.” And in “Palestinian-American,” she brilliantly turns marriageable “Daughters” into “Arable girls.”

Indeed, there are attacks on patriarchy, and these are some of best poems in the book. “Sahar & Her Sisters” is an especially dispiriting story of misogynistic, homophobic familial violence: “Their father set fire to the midwife after the/ fourth, rammed into his wife bark etched with holy verses/ to free her of the cancer that is girl […] When a story comes/ to the village about women who love women, women who drain/ women, the fathers say, Close your legs, daughters. Say,/ You don’t love the way that I love so that can’t be love […] It is foxes,/ foxes that come/ sniffing/ the/ river’s edge, foxes/ that find/ Sahar and her sisters,/ ink-haired quartet,/ hanging/ like constellations/ from the trees.”

Darkest of all are the appearances of the July 2006 war, during some of which Alyan was in Lebanon. “You ruin everything,” she tells Beirut in the eponymous poem. “I cannot wear/ lipstick/ without seeing cupped palms gathering blood from/ wounds […] Mediterranean witch. Baby, save your/ thunder.” As she explained to NOW: “I adore Beirut. Some of the language I use toward the city is harsh, but it comes from a place of frustration, not censure. It has a lot to do with watching a place I love being wounded, in a variety of ways, and feeling powerless to protect it.”

Which raises a natural question, given Alyan’s nationality: How is it that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is virtually absent in her poetry? “The political situation there is something I have found very difficult to write about in any coherent, structured manner,” she told NOW. “I would say, though, that while politics might be absent, Palestine itself is very much a presence in my writing, in that it informs how I perceive the world, the themes I am drawn to, the emotions I choose to focus on.”

In which case, contra the Mitt Romneys of the world, with Atrium we have incurred yet another debt to the enduring richness of Palestinian culture.

Atrium was published in 2012 by Three Rooms Press (New York).