Archive | November, 2010

No Ordinary Lives

30 Nov

‘Ordinary Lives’, a new book by Lebanese photographer Rania Matar, is an intelligently titled work. The photos within depict people whose everyday lives have been disrupted by terrible circumstances.  The moments Matar chooses to capture are ordinary; their setting, though, renders the mundane remarkable.  The title is a tribute to the bravery of Matar’s subjects, whose fortitude — even in the oppressive confines of a decaying refugee camp or in the heart of war — is extraordinary.

 The first photograph of the collection, for example, depicts a woman, a girl and a boy.  The woman sits in a plastic chair, calling out to someone with a glint in her eye.  The girl leans on her chair with a careless ease that suggests the woman is a close relative, an expression of giggling and secret mischievousness marking her face.  The boy is eating an apple, his entire being focused on the food.

Together, they create the foreground.  The background is a cavernous wreck of shattered buildings that seem to be collapsing at the exact moment of the snapshot.  The street is clattered with bricks, windows, balconies, shutters.

Is the outdoor chair the woman lounges on her last remnant of furniture? Is the apple the boy gazes at in such intensity the first he’s eaten for a while? Is the sparkle of the girl’s face a desperate effort to maintain a front of bravery for her family?

Like the other photos in this book, this tableau hints at stories that tease and intrigue the reader’s imagination.  Though the images are all black-and-white, no common theme unifies them, apart from the beauty in which they are rendered.  But the power of each photo is intensified by these untold stories.

Another photo shows the wavy wires of two washing lines, intersecting across a wall.  Both lines are dotted with pegs but no clothes have been hung on them.  Above the pegs hangs a large square frame; it too is empty.  Instead of holding a painting, the frame surrounds the bare expanse of a wall punctuated with bullet holes.

Sometimes the black-and-white images emphasise the barrenness that seems to govern these people’s existence. In one photo in particular, however, one wonders what might have been lost by barricading out colour.  The photo shows a woman standing at a window, her back to the camera. She is clutching the curtain that she has pulled to one side, as though what she is seeing outside the window makes it necessary for her to hold onto something for support.  A sequined sunflower pattern adorns the back of her dress; the flower’s bold outlines jar with the fear that dominates the mood of the scene.  One wonders if the vividness of color could, by magnifying the juxtaposition, add dimensions to the piece.

‘Ordinary Lives’ compiles three of Matar’s photo projects and at times the book is in danger of becoming repetitive.  The final photos of the first project all circle the issue of feminine beauty in the context of war.  Girls peer into broken mirrors, and gaze ardently at adverts or beautiful clothing; they have their eyebrows waxed and hair brushed.  The placement of these similar photos together conspires to detract from the impact of photos that, individually, are strikingly unique.

On the whole, however, the division of the photos into three different projects is effective.  It makes the variances within a theme all the more accentuated, and also encourages one to discover similarities where none might have been assumed.  Matar’s second project examines the Moslem hijab.  The contrast between these photos and the more Western-looking photos that preceded them heightens their impact.

The repetition of themes sometimes works rather well.  Having seen twenty photographs dedicated to the hijab, for instance, it is instantly noticeable when a woman in hijab appears in the midst of another project.  The head covering is the binding element in the series, yet the photos leave the spectator to focus upon the woman beneath, rather than the hijab itself.

One photograph shows a muhajiba woman walk past a row of five enormous posters, each depicting a famous Lebanese face.  Their faces are immensely naked in contrast.  In so doing, Matar draws attention to the role of the hijab and invites questions about why it is worn, even while demanding that the tradition be respected.

Matar’s photos declare her belief in the importance of art in war.  It seems appropriate, then, that New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid contributed an essay to the book.  A commentary upon Matar’s images, Shadid’s essay also seizes the opportunity to reflect upon the nature of journalism itself, in which lives are too easily obliterated and a death necessarily becomes a statistic.  He pays tribute to Matar’s ability to capture the “ordinary lives” of the people who daily face trauma and terror, and yet resiliently continue.

Vicious debates rage about war photographers. Susan Sontag once famously opined that war photography is a sickening art that ought to be banned.  ‘Ordinary Lives’ is a challenge to such a view.  Its photographs are framed with such humanism that, more than pieces of art, they are memories of and tributes to the subjects they capture.  Shadid calls the book a ‘chronicle’, and it is; it is a dedication to the mentality of a people whose lives continue livelily, regardless of the extraordinary blows that threaten them.  Far from ordinary, I think you’ll agree.


BASSMA: changing society

27 Nov

“I’m tired of the Lebanese pretending that everything is perfect.  I wanted to prove to them that it isn’t – and that only by admitting that, can we fight.”

These are the words of Sandra Klat, Lebanese founder of BASSMA (, a humanitarian organization that aims to assist social development and combat poverty in Beirut through the rehabilitation of its most important unit: The family.

Sandra established BASSMA – which means smile in Arabic – in November 2002.  It began as a food aid organization, providing monthly food packs to 35 families.  Over the last seven years, it has expanded into an institute that leads families towards self-sufficiency.  It now works with 135 families, all of whom are seen minimum on a weekly basis.  Considering that BASSMA is operated entirely by its volunteers, of whom there are currently around 50, one can understand Sandra’s frustration with society.

In an interview about life in Lebanon, a student of the Lebanese American University describes it as “a constant party.”  For her, quotidian existence provides her with beaching and skiing, trips to the beauty salon, hard work at university and hard partying to relieve it.  Asked whether poverty is a problem in Lebanon, she replied “probably.”

For Sandra, there is no “probably.”  A 2008 study found that 29% of the population(about one million Lebanese) live under the poverty line.  And yet homelessness and destitution remain neglected.   The richer counterpart of the population encounter these phenomenona in physical realization so rarely that the greater issue of poverty is easy to shelve.  “For them, it’s taboo.”  In a trend in a line with the widely-known Lebanese habit of not talking about the 15 year civil war, those who are not daily confronted by poor standards of living pretend that it does not exist.

It is for this reason that a large portion of BASSMA’s work is focused upon raising awareness.  BASSMA organizes regular awareness activities, based on the premise that “all citizens have the right to live in dignity in Lebanon.”  It is a premise with which few would disagree, but to which few in everyday life attend.

One such campaign is Kidswap, a scheme financed by the World Bank.  It enables the mixing of public and private school children, who would otherwise remain divided by their different statuses in society.  Kidswap teaches public school children to recognize and appreciate the advantages that they have, and also to respect disadvantaged children as equals.

A central part of BASSMA’s aim is to aid Lebanese social development.  The volunteers work only with families that BASSMA defines as “eventually able to be rehabilitated.”  For each family it develops an individual rehabilitation program; BASSMA then works intimately alongside the family for a minimum of three years.

Known as “assisted families,” the families BASSMA work with develop close bonds with their volunteers.  They help them in every aspect of their lives: every month the families are provided with food and hygiene packs; they are given interview practice and helped with CV composition; they are shown the most appropriate places to look for work and coordinated with employers in a matchmaking scheme reminiscent of online dating sites.  Ultimately, the objective is to restore each member of these families to a recognized, defined position in society.  Enabling them to have a social role restores their own confidence.

“The families are our families now,” says Sandra, matter-of-factly.  She has taken it upon herself and her organization to provide the care that the upper echelons of society may believe to be necessary, but do little to engender.

Aside from Klat, only three people, Nicole Maftoum, Kira Munk Wells and Michèle Sawaya, work at BASSMA.  In view of the many projects that BASSMA is pioneering, the size of the organization is remarkable.  Last year, they opened soup kitchens in Gemmayzeh and Sin El Fil.  They have an Employment Office and a Training Program, alongside their widespread awareness programs and fund-raising activities.

This, of course, is aside from the work with the families themselves.  Aspects of rehabilitation include food, medication, hospitalization, educational fees, employment and psychological follow-up.

The other plan is for geographical expansion.  BASSMA currently operates only in Greater Beirut; clearly, it is needed elsewhere.  While South Lebanon and the Bekaa are struggling in terms of social well-being, the most shocking statistics pertain to the North.  There, 38% of the population lives in poverty; of those, half live in conditions so destitute they are defined as “extreme.”

For BASSMA, the idea that there are two worlds in Lebanon, two levels of society – one rich, one poor – that do not mix and do not affect one another, is an acute inaccuracy.  Sandra defines poverty as “pervasive.  Even in the richest area, someone will be living beneath a store or something like that.”  The dichotomous nature of Lebanese society is not quite as distinct as it might pretend to be.

Cockroaches … not so bad after all?

23 Nov
Writer Rawi Hage at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Fes...

Image via Wikipedia

A man who sees himself as part man, part cockroach. This, as the basic premise of Rawi Hage’s newest novel, Cockroach, instantly evokes Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where one Gregor Samsa awakens to find that he has become a gigantic insect. Having been exploited for years by his family, his transformation makes physical the dehumanization which had been slowly taking place all of his life. His relatives’ abdication of any responsibility towards him and eventual disownment of him complete the process of his self-effacement.

For Hage’s protagonist, on the other hand, the cockroach comparison is cause to revel. Enjoying the opportunity of seeing himself as sub-human, he refuses even to name himself, and remains anonymous throughtout. His dichotomous self-perception, unlike Samsa’s, is neither abused nor forbearing; on the contrary, his half cockroach state elevates him. It provides him with freedom (to do as he pleases, without shame, without guilt); it releases him from the human condition; it even allows him his sanity.

Cockroach is set in Montreal and covers a series of events in the life of its impoverished narrator, an immigrant from an unspecified Middle Eastern country. He has attempted suicide: not out of desperation or abject misery, but “out of curiosity, or maybe as a challenge to nature, to the cosmos itself, to the recurring light. I felt oppressed by it all. The question of existence consumed me.” Clearly, in spite of his dire living conditions and employment situation (first jobless, later restaurant busboy), our narrator is intelligent, thoughtful, and highly capable. For him, life must still be worth living to be lived. His lifestyle is less a forced necessity of circumstance than a choice; considering that his poverty is, to a certain extent, self-imposed, Hage prompts the reader to question society’s typical definitions of success.

Following the suicide attempt with which the book opens, the narrator has obligatory weekly therapy sessions with Genevieve. An educated white middle-class professional woman – or “doctor”, as he initially insists on calling her – she embodies all that he is not; despite this, and despite the empathetic nature of her profession, it is the narrator who is the more “human.” Genevieve sees their sessions together as a necessary part of her job and an unfortunate by-product of society’s focus on rehabilitation, a means of giving something back to the tax-payers (because “some of us actually pay taxes, you know.”) For her, therapy is an unfortunate part of the legal system, and it is doubly unfortunate that it is she who is the therapist. When querying why the narrator is the way he is, Genevieve asks questions that cater to the conventional – about his mother, about his childhood; even when he mentions priests, she assumes that they must have been abusive. From the standpoint of her world, she can neither see into nor sympathise with his. Even when he tells her that his sister’s husband beat her, her response is (drily, stereotypically): “how do you feel about that?” And when the session is nearing its end, no matter what he is telling her, nor where is in his telling, she simply interrupts. “Our time is up.”

But the narrator displays genuine capability for human empathy. He breaks into Genevieve’s home, not to steal, but in order to see the person behind the doctor who asks and does not tell, to gain access to the inner life that she will not reveal to him. Not knowing what she is like makes him almost incapable of stopping wondering: “this made me curious about her past, her childhood of snow and yellow schoolbuses, quiet green grass and Christmas lights, her Catholic school that forbade flames, cigarettes, and orgasms.” In the absence of a noble conception of what it is to be human, the narrator is willing to consider people at every level of their psyche. He sees little difference between probing their likes and dislikes and probing the intricacies of their sex lives. Without an idea of guilt, he does not see what there is to be ashamed of in something as natural as sex. After all, would the cockroaches keep their conquests secret?

While Samsa’s metamorphosis in Kafka is visible to all, only the narrator of Cockroach perceives himself to be cockroach-esque. Yet he is open with others about his insect form, just as he is comfortable in front of others in a human form that is frequently dirty or unwashed, covered by clothes that are torn, dirty and smelly. He is entirely at ease with his life, and at ease, too, with his desire for more. His social life is lively; the days that he spends in solitude neither worry nor trouble him. The object of his lust, Shohreh, a beautiful Iranian, responds to him easily, and they become lovers and friends.
Their encounters are fulfilling and beneficial, as they each open up about their pasts. And the narrator repeatedly proves himself most capable of providing comfort to another human, in a way that Genevieve could not. At one point, Shohreh tells him a story that has traumatized her. His reaction is gently understanding, yet direct. He assures her of his help. But he is also insightful and highly considerate of her mind-state: “Then we lay on our backs and we both looked up and pretended to fall sleep under the wooden ceiling and above the mattress, enveloped by smoke and the haze of our breathing.”

Hage’s protagonist is self-absorbed in a way that Gregor Samsa can only dream of. Nothing that he says or does shames him; indeed, the very concept of shame does not seem to exist for him. He even tells Genevieve that he saw his boss’ teenage daughter “playing with herself,” to which she is, unsurprisingly, horrified. Yet one wonders if, rather than judging him as either immoral or amoral, he might simply be honest in situations where others might lie. It is to Hage’s credit that this protagonist encourages one to question social practices, as well as the morality of those who hide what they do not want known.

For instance, the narrator discovers that one of his acquaintances, an immigrant Parisian professor who enjoys belittling him for his destitute state, is in fact claiming the same social welfare. The narrator is shocked by his lies and his purposeful depiction of superiority. In a world where all humans are trapped by their pasts, the narrator’s method of escape seems better – cleaner, one might say – than the conventional immersion in things material. He lives dirtily, but professes his dirt. You begin to think that he might have a point when he claims: “maybe being human is being trapped.” Maybe being a cockroach is freedom, because it is honest.

Hage says the image of the cockroach appealed to him because “it’s the closest thing to the earth. It’s the closest thing to the underground. Somehow, it enters people’s places with ease. It’s functional and metaphoric at the same time.” It is the imaginary other self that affords the narrator to embrace what he is as a human, “Yes”, he says, “I am poor, I am vermin, a bug, I am at the bottom of the scale. But I still exist.”

Yemen – a nation of terrorists? Yeah, right

17 Nov

Two weeks ago, two planes from the same origin, Yemen, were found to be carrying bombs targeting Jewish synagogues.  A discomforting fact it is – but a reason to vilify a nation, it is not.  The newspapers were immediately deluged with talks of the ‘deadly threat’ from Yemen; the instant reaction of the airports was to halt all cargo planes from Yemen.  Magnus Ranstorp, so-called ‘terrorism expert’, called Yemen ‘the new Afghanistan’.  What a helpful comment.  It really ensures that international treatment of Yemen remains balanced, understanding and fruitful.

Looking at the country the bombs came from is hardly examining the root of the problem.  Yemen has been used as one in many means to attacking the West; what therefore needs attention are the ways in which the West could prevent fuelling Arab hatred and could stop the spread of an Al Qaeda mindset in Arab regions.  Criminalising Yemen, however, enacts the opposite.  It doesn’t prevent our being attacked (another country – any country that feels the West is an interfering bully, or a threat to faith – will step up, just as Yemen did), but it does increase anti-Western feeling within the Yemenis.  It increases Al Qaeda’s chance of gaining influence.

It is not Yemen that we need to be fearful of.  Treating it like ‘the new Afghanistan’ risks making all the same mistakes we’ve already made in Afghanistan.  Treating a country like a criminal has the same terrible implications as treating a young child who hits his brother like a psychopath: it makes bad behaviour inevitable.  It breeds it.  Only in this case, because it is a country and not an individual that we are branding, the consequences are hundreds, thousands of times bigger.  Not only do we offend an entire population, we risk pushing every member of that population towards precisely the course of action we have already condemned them for.

The consequences of generalising are already clear.  Was the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan ten years ago as devastating as it is now? In defining Afghanistan as a ‘state of terror,’ haven’t we polarised it? Haven’t we distanced ourselves from it and condemned it? The most obvious effect of that is that ‘terrorist’ groups like Al-Qaeda are able to flourish.  In the absence of support from elsewhere, and amidst terrible living conditions and a fraught political situation, the Afghans increasingly look to Al Qaeda for their greatest chance at a better future.

Al-Qaeda’s outreach in the Middle East is already wide, its influence potent.  Any country that feels wronged by the West is susceptible to the prowess of its propaganda.  Thus a country that is targeted by the West also becomes fertile ground for hatred towards it; hatred, and a resentment that, because unexpresseable – the West holds the power, after all – festers and builds up with no option of release.  Once that has happened, an act like suicide bombing begins to resemble the only viable mode of defence.  The words of Al-Qaeda begin to seem sensible.

It is a frightening circle.  To a downtrodden population who feel that they have been mistreated and are suffering unheard, the resolution offered by groups like Al-Qaeda can seem like the best option.  And when a tiny percentage of nationals from one country commit an act that the West classifies as terrorism, the entire country is maligned by the West, harshly condemned.  The people who would not have considered terrorist action feel oppressed and slandered; resentment is fuelled; support for Al-Qaeda grows.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world.  It is extremely vulnerable to a group that promises a better way of life; that promises support and trust; that seems to promote values the country itself holds strong – values like religious faith, which most Middle Eastern countries, and indeed many practising British nationals, regard as dangerously lacking in the West.  Like much of the Middle East, Yemen feels that the West has become arrogant, invading where it is not wanted.  (Case in point: the Yemeni government stated a fortnight ago that the issue of cargo security within Yemen is a Yemeni affair and that they will deal with it without Western involvement.)

Instead of focusing our anti-terrorist fears and legislation on Yemen, we should be looking at other places where Al-Qaeda have influence and where support for the group is in danger of taking hold.  We should decide what we can do in those areas to make the lives of others easier and ourselves more popular, so that the ethics of Al-Qaeda do not become, in the manner of the last resort, viable.

Stopping calling terrorism ‘terrorism’ would be a good starting point.  We are just dehumanising enemies who are – however much Bush and Blair didn’t want to admit it – human.  In lumping together anybody who decides that their most intelligent, bravest and noblest act is to tie themselves to a bomb, and under an umbrella term that is deliberately hostile no less, we fail to understand them.  We fail to offer the loved ones that they left behind any hope.  We fail to pass onto their children any idea that there might be a better way.  We fail to show to the country as a whole that, really, the West is not all that bad.

When we describe Yemen as the new Afghanistan, we tell Afghanistan that we still believe that they are a state of terrorists – and we tell Yemen that we will treat them in exactly that way; we tell Yemen that we will do to them what we did to the Afghans.   We make the Yemenis who would never have dreamt of spreading animosity against the West begin to consider that Al-Qaeda might have the right idea.  Ultimately, seeing the issue as a Yemeni one is – to use a very Western phrase – only going to bite us in the ass.  I very much doubt that serious threats to Western security will come from Yemen now; Al-Qaeda will know that it is time to move on.  But if we keep blaming Yemen, then what we will see are the petty, pointless and desperate acts that are now rife in Iraq and Afghanistan, where despairing men weekly blow themselves up in the towns that were their homes, amongst the people that were their community, because they can see no future and no hope.  And if that happens in Yemen now, we will have only ourselves to blame.