Tag Archives: Lebanon

Six poets, three countries, transcending borders

13 May

BEIRUT: “All writers have to cross a border of some kind,” said Scottish poet Tom Pow, “real or imagined.”

Pow was one of six international poets to participate in “Crossing Borders/Bearing Witness,” a panel discussion held Wednesday evening at the Saifi Urban Gardens as part of Reel Festivals 2011, an event devised to celebrate and instigate cultural interplay between Syria, Lebanon and Scotland.

Six poets, two from each of the three countries, gathered to discuss notions of border and the “role” (if any) of the poet.

Borders and witnessing, Pow continued, are at the essence of what Reel is about: “Learn[ing] from one another and understand[ing] each other’s worlds better [through] art and culture.”

The poets met for the first time only last week and have already begun collaborating on casual translations of one another’s work. The poets were asked to give a three-minute talk on borders, witnessing or both in relation to geography, language or the past. The subsequent discussion was wide ranging.

Emily Ballou, a Glasgow-based American-Australian poet emphasized her multinational background. She said she was frustrated by the traditional ice-breaking question, “Where are you from?” since it forces upon her a thwarted sense of belonging.

“I want to be asked ‘Where do you belong?’” she continued, “and I want to know what happens when you can’t live where you belong.”

For Ballou, who is also a screenwriter and a novelist, the question of exile, whether self-imposed or necessary, is also related to the question of bearing witness.

In a reference to Syria – where the first segment of Reel 2011 had to be canceled because of the current political situation – Ballou remarked that, as a writer, she is now “bearing witness to witnesses” – to the Syrian poets taking part in the festival who are living in a place she as a foreigner has been advised not to visit.

“I can witness the pulse in each writer’s work that helps me to connect to [it] and to their experience.”

Poetry’s ability to recreate experience was also celebrated by Scottish poet William Letford, who described poetry as “language that opens up moments. The poems I love most are the ones where my eyes are opened to someone else’s perspective.”

Coming to Lebanon, Ballou said, has “infused the border question” with greater meaning, explaining that she was only now beginning to “feel a connection to Scotland, having left.” There is a paradoxical relationship between location and identity, she suggested, between the existence of geographical or linguistic divisions and of a connection that surpasses them.

Syrian poet Golan Haji referred the question to sometimes random notions of the border. Describing the “imaginary border” between Kurds and Turks, he described a man killed by Turkish soldiers. “His body was burnt black in the yellow fields” he said, “ … and just because he was on the border.” Simultaneously though, children were giving food to these same soldiers “because they spoke the same language.”

For Mazen Maarouf, notions of the border held an arbitrary aspect. A Palestinian poet and journalist living in Beirut as a refugee, he identified a strong connection between borders and memory. “I was always stereotyped by people who had a memory of the [Civil] War, because the Palestinians took part and made mistakes. I am surrounded by blocks that stop me from reaching my country.

“I never thought of borders being about geography,” he continued. “ … Borders are made not by systems, protocols or society but by the accumulation of evils that take place in life.”

Maarouf’s hope was that poetry might circumvent these borders, not by being explicitly political, but by exposing borders to be things created by history and time.

Lebanon’s Yehia Jaber also saw borders in political, social terms. He spoke of the way that, in Lebanon, the very act of naming oneself imposes borders. “When you hear a name, you can identify. And your next question is, Where do you live?”

Though Jaber described Lebanon as “a country without official borders,” he spoke of social, political and religious barricades that extend deep into society. “I feel uncomfortable everywhere,” he added. Born to a Shiite family, Jaber lives in the traditionally Christian area of Ain al-Rammeneh.

Since he is not affiliated to Hezbollah, he said, he feels anxious both in Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. “Even in Hamra Street I feel nervous because there, there are the national parties.”

Letford took the discussion in a different direction, evoking the border between life and death. The acknowledgement and embrace of the delicacy of this border daily makes him live better. “You are linked to the person on that border,” he said. “And if you live life like that, everything is a gift.”

Syrian poet Rasha Omran remarked that “borders are not significant in my work. Ideas of borders are different now, because of the Internet. There are no longer barriers to communication.”

Omran, who directs the annual Al-Sindiyana culture festival, introduced the controversial topic of poetry’s place in modern society. Maarouf insisted that it is poetry’s role to “witness the world in a modern way.”

Ballou preferred to focus on poetry as “an opportunity to connect with someone through writing. I’m filtering myself, through a mask … [and] by losing myself I know more.”

“Each poem holds many others inside it,” Haji agreed. “Poetry has made me an eyewitness – even to things I did not live.”

Much as these six poets sometimes disagreed, the rapport that developed among them provided a compelling argument for the power of poetry to surpass borders and create dialogue.

The paradox of this monologue, discussion and debate – and thus the festival as a whole – is that while it crosses and transcends borders, it also celebrates them.



The art of bringing people together

9 May

BEIRUT: Art’s ability to incite social change is one of history’s most discussed topics. Since “The Republic,” in which Plato famously argues for poetry’s removal from the state, the subject has been debated by philosophers and artists alike.

Plato wasn’t as anti-art as is popularly believed. His stance against poetry was rather against its power; poetry, he urged, ought to not “only give pleasure but bring lasting benefit to human life and human society.”

It is a strong claim for the form, and one that might – and has – put off artists and readers alike. Not, however, Reel Festivals, an international arts festival that hopes to “bring a different face to regions in conflict.”

“Art,” says festival coordinator Daniel Gorman, “can bring people together like nothing else; it can speak directly to our emotions and bring us together to celebrate both similarities and differences.”

Reel is all about bringing people together. The concept was born in 2007 after Gorman and his colleagues visited Afghanistan with the Scottish organization Afghan Schools Trust. “I met a huge amount of inspiring people,” says Gorman. So many, indeed, that the idea of communicating through each nation’s art took hold, and Afghani culture was brought home along with the returning voyagers. “Reel Afghanistan” took place in 2009 in Edinburgh, though regional instability prevented the festival from presenting a reciprocal festival in Kabul.

A year later “Reel Iraq” continued the cultural exchange, bringing to Edinburgh an entirely different Iraq from the one seen in daily headlines.

Now Reel Festivals is being held in its partner countries for the first time. This year’s festival is trilateral, crossing the borders between Scotland, Syria and Lebanon.

Recent events in Syria have led to the cancellation of the Damascus-based events, which were to have begun on May 7. The Syrian-inspired events planned to take place in Scotland will go ahead.

The first festival bringing Scottish films, music and poetry to Lebanon, Reel is as much about exposing Scottish culture to the Lebanese as the other way around.

The Beirut section of Reel 2011 begins Monday and continues until Sunday, May 15. Events include screenings of six classic and contemporary films, musical performances, discussions on poetry and a live poetry session.

Films, showing daily at 8 p.m. until Saturday at Metropolis-Empire Sofil, include premieres, documentaries and shorts. Three question-and-answer sessions with Scottish directors will also take place. A “Story-Telling of Cinema” workshop will take place following Thursday’s film, Amy Hardie’s “The Edge of Dreaming.”

The organizers seem to be savoring a sense of irony, having scheduled a Scottish horror film, “The Wicker Man,” for Friday the 13th. Saturday sees the first ever Arabic-language screening of Christopher Young’s “Seachd – the Inaccessible Pinnacle,” the first feature film made in Scottish Gaelic.

Music is also a crucial part of the festival. Internationally renowned Scottish musician Bill Drummond will be in town with his new choir “The17,” and is to give a lecture Wednesday at USJ’s Beirut campus on the future of music. The lecture will be followed by a performance with the choir.

Art aficionados will want to keep a lookout for a piece of graffiti which, courtesy of Drummond, is to appear somewhere in Beirut over the next seven days: “Imagine waking up tomorrow and all music had disappeared.”

Four poets hailing from Scotland (Emily Ballou, William Letford, Tom Pow and Ryan Van Winkle), two Syrian poets (Golan Haji and Rasha Omran) and two Lebanon-based poets (Mazen Maarouf and Yehia Jaber) will take part in poetry events in Beirut and Edinburgh. Somewhat topically, they will also be discussing borders and the poet’s (in)ability to cross them.

Celtic folk-techno fusion pioneers “Shooglenifty” are set to play at Beirut’s legendary Music Hall in a grand finale Sunday.

While Reel Festivals exists partly in order “to empower cultural figures and encourage their development,” another of its stated intentions is to “spread awareness of areas in conflict beyond the headlines.” The final sector of the festival thus takes place from May 16-21 in Scotland, and is to include a selection of Lebanese films – one of which is Zeina Daccache’s “Twelve Angry Lebanese” – and a retrospective from the acclaimed Syrian director Omar Amiralay.

Scotland will also witness a fusion of dabke-electronica beats from Syrian and Lebanese artists. Reel Festivals is a project of Firefly International, a Scottish charity aiming to encourage dialogue and communication through the arts. Run by Gorman and Syrian-born Palestinian Yasmin Fedda, both of whom are filmmakers, Firefly aims, through Reel, to “shine a little light” on the aspects of the Middle East that international media tend to shun – namely, its arts and culture.

Reel wants to encourage both “engagement with the arts and international issues” and “dialogue between communities.”

Given recent developments in Syria and the fact that the festival has had to be cancelled there, such exchange has never seemed more necessary. “We believe that art can transcend barriers,” says Gorman. Whether or not Plato would agree, it has got to be worth a try.

Reel Festivals 2011 begins in Beirut Monday and continues until May 15. For more information and the schedule of events visit www.reelfestivals.org.


The first Lebanese Circus comes to town

30 Apr

JDEIDEH: Without a second thought, fearless kids take risks that their parents would balk at. They ski backwards, jump out of windows and dangle their bodies out of speeding cars.

This is one reason child performers are so appealing: youngsters throw themselves entirely into their practice; they are ever keen to push their act that little bit further, to take that extra risk. Add to that the fact that there is something mesmerizing about “mini-humans” doing things we, as adults, cannot, and you have a fail-safe recipe for performance success.

The recipe is something Izhac Abu Sari, 25, and Thierry Antonios, 23, seem to have taken into account. Performers themselves, the pair are the founders of the “Cirque du Liban,” Lebanon’s first circus entertainment company, this week performing “The Mystery Show” at Jdeideh’s Sagesse Theater.

Comprising 25 of CDL’s multi-talented entertainers, it is no coincidence that the show’s performers range in age from 7 to 25, with the heaviest concentration in their early-teens.

Backstage before the show begins, a 12-year-old boy, clad in a baggy clown outfit, smiles cheekily and then falls in a dagger-straight collapse to the floor. If it wasn’t for the lack of attention the other young performers pay him (such jests are clearly commonplace) you might have feared some bodily attack; as it is, you know that he is simply priming his shocked, aged spectators for what is to come.

This zestful, mischievous sort of energy was exactly what made “The Mystery Show” successful.

Though called a “circus,” the Cirque du Liban is more a group of talented entertainers. Abu Sari and Antonios saw a gap in Lebanon’s entertainment sector and, with the help of performer-friends, brought together a group of individuals worthy of public performance.

The company was founded in 2006 and has been performing at venues across the Arab world since 2007. Though a private troupe for hire – they customize their performance according to occasion – CDL decided last year that it was time they put together a show.

The decision was one determined by more than aspects commercial. As the show’s organizer George Zughbi pointed out “this is the first time circus in Lebanon has been a form of art.”

Thus while CDL generally offers a variety of shows, parades and kids or adult entertainment, “The Mystery Show” is a coherent, sequential piece. “We wanted to put a show together, all together” explained Antonios.

“[In Lebanon] we like to bring people from abroad to perform for us, but it is better to have our own,” continued Zughbi. “Performers from Tripoli, from Beirut, from the south – all have come together here with one dream: to perform in the circus.”

“The Mystery Show” is aptly named; as a member of the audience, you are never quite sure what is coming next. The show is an extravaganza of Cirque du Liban specialties – a sort of catalogue of talent – set to pulsating music.

Acrobatics, juggling, stilts, fire-breathing and -dancing, body contortion, ballet and plenty of slapstick comedy well worthy of Charlie Chaplin, are all included in the Cirque du Liban roll-call. In pride of place on the show’s billing is local celebrity illusionist Amine Jabbour, whose guest role dominates the second half.

But it is the spicy eagerness the youthful troupe bring to their parts that lights up the show. Gymnast Zein al-Koubasi’s routine, for instance, was kept visually stimulating because of the tantalizingly teasing nature of his performance. Essentially an exhibition of his athlete’s strength and phenomenal muscular power, the piece was made successful by Koubasi’s use of his props: five chairs he used to build a tower.

The slow, drawn out introduction of each new chair elicited gasps from spectators, as did the apparently magical way in which he constructed them: They were balanced at angles increasingly unstable. Such hand-tingling tangents thrilled onlookers and vitalized the set.

Likewise a trampoline-and-gym-horse routine was livened up by the performers’ comically sized clown gear and vividly orange wigs. Though they were obviously keen to display their skills, the boys’ act centered around comic timing and seemingly painful landings.

Impressive shows of physical prowess were, throughout, made subordinate to this ambience of fun. Juggling was mixed with exaggeratedly seductive Arabic dancing; a mimed motorbike sequence was interrupted with a blast of Celine Dion’s “Titanic” just moments before a crash.

Even the act of Freddy Kachoua, a 15-year-old contortionist, was spiced up with slapstick. Given a spot in the limelight in order to dazzle the audience with a body that seemed to be made entirely of fluid, Kachoua then played the clown in a gym-routine, ending up pushed over mid-contortion. Every member of the ensemble delighted in interacting with and provoking the predominantly under-12 audience.

A clever variation on the pie-in-face theme came with the dangling use of a basketful of eggs that managed to find its way into the audience.

Music was central to the show. Songs were constantly blasted to keep the audience at an incredible level of hyperactivity; they were jumping about as much as the onstage performers. And unicycles were even used as guitars.

Though not a seamless show, and at times more akin to variety than circus, the excitement of the audience throughout was proof of the success both of “The Mystery Show” and the Cirque du Liban.

This talented cast of young performers are sure to continue their triumphant formula: Comedy, rousing displays of daredevilry, and above all, roguish tomfoolery.

“This,” emphasized Zughbi, “is the first time ever in Lebanon that a Lebanese people have performed together as a circus.” It won’t be the last.



Artistic Worlds

23 Feb
Paul Cezanne's Leda and the Swan, now in the B...

Image via Wikipedia

To give you a bizarre anecdote of what Lebanon surprise me with today – well, lots, as usual. A university class on two of my favourite poems (Yeats’ Leda and the Swan and Donne’s The Sun Rising) began proceedings nicely. Having studied both before I had an unfair advantage over my classmates and decided to keep schtum; I was really interested to see what their initial responses would be. Not only are the subjects of these poems complex, but also their structure and linguistic styles. Leda is saturated in mythological imagery; Donne’s English comes out of the convoluted grandeur of the seventeenth-century. Even for literature students, Donne and Yeats are hardly simple. And these students did not have English as their first language. I can’t imagine reading modernist or Renaissance French poetry and finding it a piece of cake.

How did everybody react? Well, one possible cultural difference between the English and the Lebanese is the latter’s tendency to take part in everything, regardless of whether it bores or excites them. Actually it isn’t so much a tendency as an insistence. It seems to be to do with pride; it’s a matter of honour to at least look like you are involved in what you’re doing and especially to look as though you know what you are talking about. (Image is very, very important.) And so various students tossed in their interpretations, in general with an assured, almost bored air, as though the answer was unambiguously, obviously evident. And half the point of poetry is that that isn’t the case. Those who didn’t voice opinions chatted to their neighbours instead. The class has only about twenty people so the buzz of background chatterings was clearly audible, but bizarrely no one seemed put off by it, even really aware of it.

The strongest impression I got was of the students as convinced either that they were right (sure that ‘this means this’ without worrying about providing evidence) or that there was one unmistakeable right answer (and they wanted the professor to tell them what it was). Overall, an utterly different experience from any university class I’ve been in. It’s surely in part due to the fact that ‘art’ is still widely seen as a soft option when it comes to study. Many of the kids – both girls and boys – are simply taking the class to fill a gap in their credits. A far cry from England’s university system, which is all about getting you to discover your specialism. In today’s class, giving a perspective was a multitude of things but one thing it was not was a result of engaging with the poems. A way to stave off boredom, a way of interacting with the teacher (who is, after all, responsible for grade assignment) and also a symptom of the assumption that there was one simple correct answer. Perhaps because poetry is largely seen as wishy-washy (and especially if you’re a business student who doesn’t want to be reading seventeenth-century English sonnets) the focus of most of the students was on finding out the “message” of each poem so they could learn it for the exam.

This sounds like a string of generalisations, but really it is one of observations. Naturally not every student thinks in this way; those in my class, did. One striking thing, though, about the Lebanese – this is a generalisation, and one I wholeheartedly stick to – is that they are far from self-conscious.

Here’s another example from today of this self-possession. I had (rather indulgently) booked a pedicure at 5 and wasn’t seen until … 6.30. Even by Lebanese standards (and Lebanese lateness is one cultural cliché that is absolutely true) this was shonky. Luckily I was reviewing a book so I had lots to do. But as a writer it was very amusing to see how little the staff were ruffled by my waiting. Eventually the cleaner offered me Nescafe; at around 6 the receptionist came to whisper sorries – I think the enormous notebook on my lap, pen in hand and thoughtful look on my face was making them wary – and offer me a voucher. The best part of it all was that she looked down at my feet, nakedly awaiting their pampering, and immediately freaked out. Thanks to terrible circulation my feet are always blue; all the staff members (previously so busy I had had to wait 90 minutes) came to stare at my poor blue swollen toes and conjecture what my ailments might be. Nice and loudly. And nice and embarrassing for me. Still, if they weren’t bothered about excitedly decrying the sorry state of my feet with shrieks and points, I was ready to mimic their self-assurance and to at least strain for a sense of poise. Ah! The Lebanese teach me something every day.

Meanwhile hundreds have died in Libya and I hadn’t heard a word about it. The taboo for talking of things political seems to extend beyond borders.

February 14

22 Feb
Hariri memorial shrine.

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been here almost a month now and it’s amazing both how much has changed and how little.  The government has collapsed; the Middle East in general is experiencing an enormous time of change; last Monday marked six years since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; the UN Special Tribunal is to release its verdict on Hariri’s death and is likely to accuse Hezbollah – the group who put the current PM in power.  Pretty big stuff going on.  The landscape has changed too – since I’ve been away, bridges have sprung up, blocked roads have been freed, buildings have been restored.  Even old choice nightclubs, like L-Bar, which last summer was one of Monot’s most popular clubs, have magically transformed into something new.  There’s the Lebanese love for the cutting-edge and contempt for stasis.  Anything that’s been too samey for too long becomes dull and uncool.  In the world of clubbing at least, tradition is a killer.

Apart from all of that excitement though, life goes on.  The most telling instance was last Monday.  It might have been Valentine’s Day for most but for supporters of Hariri it was a day of commemoration for a martyred hero.  Since 2005, February 14th has been the day for a mass show of support for the Hariri family’s political allies, otherwise known as the March 14 coalition.  Each year thousands of people gather at Martyr’s square, lament Hariri’s loss, proclaim their support for Saad and generally demonstrate enormous patriotism.   (Hariri is credited as the man who ‘rebuilt’ Lebanon and called for its independence.  His death, which many believe to have been carried out by Syria or by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, resulted directly in the expulsion of the Syrian forces in Lebanon – some feat, considering that Syrian forces had been around since the start of the Civil War in 1975.)  This year, although there was a ceremony on Martyr’s Square to mark the precise moment of the explosion that killed Hariri and 22 others, the major event was a political rally in BIEL.

And what an event it was.  This year the anniversary was particularly tense because Saad is no longer PM and because the power of Hezbollah is more explicit and more legitimate than it has ever been before.  The impact of Hariri’s death, which has always seemed to have at least resulted in good – The Cedar Revolution, combined with the fact that Lebanon has gone from strength to strength over the last 5 years – can now be said to have lessened.  It is doubtful that the March 14 coalition will be a part of Mikati’s new government.  And for the first time since 2005, the PM is a March 8 candidate.

For these reasons then, the BIEL rally was bound to be fraught.  But it was not only fraught; it was emotionally seething.  In spite of the fact that most of the attendees were ardent supporters of both March 14 and Hariri, initially the atmosphere was filled with tension.  Simply getting in was a hassle.  There was pushing and bumping all the way through security.  Queuing is generally considered pointless in Lebanon so jostling is normal, but this was a whole new level.  The chamber was blocked off by doormen who insisted on keeping the glass doors shut.  Imagine, if you please, eight thousand people surging and shoving against firmly shut doors, all of whom are already feeling excitable and are not so much spoiling for a fight as bound to punch the first person who gets in their way as a point of honour (for who, after all, would dare to barricade you out of the room where soon will be speaking the son of the man you admire and mourn most?) Regardless of whether you are man or woman, suited or sporting the hijab, you too are smacked against those glass doors and left gasping for breath.  I met two Egyptian press photographers who had just left Cairo to cover the event.  They described it – and I quote – as “worse than Egypt!”; some claim, considering what was going on over there at the same time.

The doors were opened in sudden and short bursts, each burst allowing only about twenty people through, so the whole process took a long time.  Everyone rushed through at such speed that there was still an atmosphere of aggression when you toppled suddenly into the room.  But eventually we were in.  And at that point all of the tension and the trouble vanished.  The talk, of course, had by now already begun.  As you have probably gathered, organisation is not Lebanon’s strong point.  Heavily emotionalising something though, is.  ‘Talk’ is not really a sufficient word to capture what occurred over the next two and a half hours.  Each figure (speakers were Phalange leader Amin Gemayel, Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, ex-Minister Mohamamad Abdel-Hamid Beydoun and of course Saad Hariri) was introduced as though a legendary rock star and welcomed with raucous applause, the applause that might greet home-coming war heroes.  The appearance of Saad was hyped to an almost unbelievable extent.  Video footage of his murdered father was actually interrupted so that the screen could display his own zoomed-in image, shaky and teary.  Each time his name was mentioned a violent clapping, complete with shrill whistles and screams, took over the room, and the audience would rush to their feet.  Men repeated Saad Saad in ritual-like chants.  During Saad’s speech (which of course came last) most of the people around me were crying.  In fact, two bulky men who had earlier fought over a chair and raised their fists at one another clasped hands; one lent the other tissues.

The occasion was all about eliciting an emotional response.  Each speech was interspersed with video footage of assassinated political figures.  The footage consisted largely of a photo collage (of the figures and of the scenes of their deaths) accompanied by voice-overs describing the victims’ personalities.  Their loved ones were interviewed and their achievements listed.   As for the speeches, they too were highly emotionalised, thriving on their own rhetoric.  The names of other assassinated political figures were repeated as if magical – Pierre Gemayel, Gibran Tueni, Bashir Gemayel – and later became more intimate: Pierre, Gibran, Bashir.  It was expertly done.  Enormous portraits of the late Hariri and other slain officials were hung along the wall next to the screen magnifying the faces of the speakers.  At either end of the chamber was a gigantic cedar tree (Lebanon’s national symbol) which, upon looking closer, revealed thousands of photos of the crowds who gathered on March 14 2005 and led to the creation of the coalition.  There was a tremendous sense of the day as quite sacred.

Nicely mixed in with this was the typical Lebanese casualness towards all such events.  Once everybody was settled, the ceremony became an entertainment.  Snacks were produced; everybody sat back comfortably in their chairs and prepared to watch proceedings like a movie that one takes part in.  A row of women in front of me presented the stereotyped picture of girlish high spirits, each of them giggling throughout the speeches and at times having to hide their faces in one another’s coverings so as to muffle the sound of their laughter.  Their amusement was not insulting.  The day was far more about togetherness than grieving.  Above all, it was an opportunity to show solidarity – and that meant the mentality of the crowd in all its conceptions.  The man who earlier had had to borrow a tissue managed to interrupt a speech by yawning so loudly that everybody around him turned and laughed.  One woman shrieked joyously across to him to ask if he was tired.  People enjoyed booing Syria and Michel Aoun as much as they enjoyed displaying their adoration for Saad.

And at the end? Once Saad stopped speaking, people surged towards the exit with as much energy as they had earlier invested in getting in – despite the fact that a final video was being shown.  Cigarettes were lit and cigarette butts dropped.  Papers with the program were left dishevelled on the floor.  Had the two and a half hour rally made anyone think differently about the future? About the way Lebanon is governed? About the existence of coalitions like March 8 and March 14? My impression was that, for most, February 14 had been a day of entertainment.  As I said, life goes on.  And besides, by now it was time for the Valentine celebration.


For a translation of Hariri’s speech see here http://en.saidaonline.com/news.php?go=fullnews&newsid=25128

Back in Lebanon – and life goes on

21 Feb

So.  The Middle East.  What’s it like actually on the ground? What’s going on here, in real time, from the place itself? Here I am in Lebanon, slap bang in the capital of a country whose (non) government has spent much of the last month occupying news headlines and panicking residents and life is as it was when I was last here.  Life goes on.  It is not so much that Lebanon’s political situation has changed but that the static and fractious nature of its government has become more obvious.   For the last few weeks tensions have been rising over the price of fuel.  This is largely because of disagreements and deliberate dawdling from Energy Minister Jibran Bassil and Finance Minister Raya Hassan, both of whom have criticised the other for being so slow.  And why? There seems to be the idea that to credit the one automatically discredits the other.  Neither wants the other to have the glory of a successful action and each has the ability to prevent the decisions of the other from going forward.  It’s bizarre: the Lebanese, who love so much to socialise and to debate, are governing in the same way they host their famous – and fabulous – lunch and dinner parties.  It is lots of talk and lots of wrangling, all of which stems from and is deeply steeped in political, personal or religious affiliations and then phut! little more is done.  Ideas, finding neither enthusiasm nor constructive criticism, simply fizzle out.

That all sounds fairly depressing, though; and one thing that is certain about life in Lebanon is that it is far from depressing.  However ironic it is, a political deadlock has been going on for so long that an all-out government collapse makes little tangible difference.  It is when things directly alter the daily lives of the people – like the price of fuel – that the state of affairs becomes explicit.  Otherwise it continues comfortably in the background.  So the time that Mikati is taking now to form his government sounds far more exciting than it really is.  What! Lebanon without a government! How will it go on? Unfortunately, the simple answer is: quite easily – just as it ever does.

Meanwhile Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic movement and an ally of Hezbollah’s March 8 coalition, is insisting that his bloc gets most of the Christian cabinet seats in Mikati’s government, thereby preventing President Michel Suleiman from his share.  So proceedings have been held up considerably.  Aoun has done this before.  When Saad Hariri was forming his government in 2009, Aoun insisted that Jibran Bassil – the very same Bassil featured above – retain his post in the government, despite having lost the election in his home district of Batroun.  With a helping hand from Hezbollah, Aoun won.  It is likely that his current demands will be met too.  It seems that no one can stop anyone from the magnificent power of the veto.  When will the new government be formed? You can’t help but begin to wonder – does it matter?

Jumblatt attacks tribunal as threat to Lebanese security

23 Jan
Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Soci...

Image via Wikipedia

Tariq Alhonmayed, editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, on Wednesday wrote “the time has come to reform Lebanon the hard way, and the International Tribunal is the best way to do this.”  It does indeed look like mediation efforts in Lebanon have reached boiling – or rather, breaking – point.  Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Qatar, the US, France – each has thrown in their pennies’ worth and promptly backed away before any more hard-earned cash (substitute status/reputation/time) is lost.  Each, while worrying aloud about the effect war or violence in Lebanon may have across the region, has decided that the attempt to find a solution is fruitless, at least for now.  Western-affiliated countries continue to stress the importance of the tribunal; supporters of Arabian empowerment, who tend also to be anti-Western, continue to back Hezbollah, meaning that they also follow its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in denouncing the UN tribunal as “an Israeli project.”

How can such divergent perspectives be reconciled? Given that even the international mediators – naturally not as emotionally involved in Lebanese domestic affairs as are the key players – cannot come to a resolution, it is hardly surprising that a successful compromise between the March 8 and March 14 camps has yet to be reached.  But Alhonmayed’s comment demonstrates just how much further there is to go.  His proposed solution is based around the justice that will come out of the International Tribunal.  But this is exactly the problem.  Will it be justice, if the accused party (most likely Hezbollah) believes the tribunal to be biased? Will its verdict carry any weight? Will it have any power to condemn the guilty party? Although by international law accused criminals can be tried in absentia, academic Franklin Lamb has pointed out that this is in danger of breaking Lebanese law and may not be upheld.  There is strife between the UN investigators conducting the inquiry.

And even if the tribunal’s verdict is straightforward and a guilty party is tried, the bulk of the problem remains.  Hezbollah take the very existence of the tribunal as a personal affront.  They also see it as an insult to Lebanon.  For them, supporters of the tribunal are Westophiles, unpatriotic.  Saad Hariri, of the March 14 camp, has backed the tribunal: it is, after all, investigating the murder of his father.  But his decision has cost him the premiership and it now looks unlikely he will be re-elected.  Leader of the Druze sect Wallid Jumblatt, who just days ago declared his staunch support for Hariri (currently caretaker PM) announced on Friday that his party “will stand firm in support of Syria and the resistance [Hezbollah].”  Jumblatt is known for his reversals of support; a pragmatist and patriot, his allies depend upon who offers the Druze a better deal and what seems most promising for Lebanon.  His decisions tend to be intelligently calculated and he is influential.  His backing of Hezbollah is troublesome for Hariri, and not only because Jumblatt has 11 MPs in his bloc.  If Jumblatt, generally agreed to be a moderate, backs Hezbollah, undecided public support may conclude that, in fact, Hezbollah does seem to offer a better option.  Hezbollah now have 62 allies in parliament; Hariri has 60.  65 are needed for a new government to be legitimate.  Hezbollah, the party of “the resistance” for so long, are fast becoming the party with the largest claim to legitimacy – and to power.  And if they govern Lebanon, whatever the International Tribunal uncovers is unlikely to have an affect.  Which brings us back to Alhonmayed’s hope.  Whether for better or worse, the UN tribunal will not reform Lebanon.

Nasrallah’s eloquence

18 Jan
Hassan Nasrallah on TV

Image by Kodak Agfa via Flickr

Hassan Nasrallah took to Al-Manar TV on Sunday night to speak of recent developments in Lebanon and to clarify the part Hezbollah has played.  In a clever move that implied his willingness to communicate and to maintain openness and honesty with the Lebanese people, Nasrallah explained the background to the failure of the Saudi-Syrian settlement, which happened so rapidly and took so many by surprise.

“It is the right of all the Lebanese to know and … facts can always uncover the schemes being prepared for our country,” he said.

Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah (Party of God), said that his group had always supported the Saudi Syrian effort to end tension in Lebanon in light of the STL probing of those responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.  He even said that “we bargained on this effort as all the Lebanese who sought welfare for Lebanon.”  Such a claim is in direct opposition to the claims made last week by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when eleven ministers resigned from the cabinet and effectively dissolved the government.  Her response was that such an action would not be committed by anyone with the interest of Lebanon in their hearts and as their goal.

Mrs Clinton also pointed out that opposition to the UN tribunal is an opposition to justice for the Lebanese.  Hezbollah, who pride themselves on being patriotic, have been keen to emphasise that they are not against the tribunal in itself, but the politicised symbol it has now become.  Nasrallah has long labelled it “an Israeli project” and claimed that it will indict Hezbollah because that would be the most convenient conclusion for enemies of the group.

Nasrallah said on Sunday: “We said that we refused a politicized indictment and we consider ourselves as its target.  However, Lebanon is our country and we adhere to safeguard it. We reached the following conclusion.  We put Lebanon aside through three items: the government withdraws Lebanese judges from the STL, stops funding it, and cancels the understanding memo between it and the international tribunal. These three items do not cancel the STL, regardless of our opinion of it.”

These, according to Nasrallah, were Hezbollah’s terms for the Saudi-Syrian settlement; he said also that the Saudis agreed.  “There was a positive atmosphere but the Saudi king’s illness slowed down the process and negotiations were taking place via telephone.  Two weeks ago, we had confirmation that the king underwent a successful operation and that he was recovering and willing to move forward with the effort to reach an agreement.  We were told that the king [Saudi King Abdullah] will send for Hariri to come to the US to put the final touches on the agreement.  Then Hariri made his statement saying the deal was cut months ago; this needs to be verified, but nevertheless it’s good. Then Hariri goes to the US, holds some meetings, and without prior notice he calls the Syrians to tell them that he cannot continue with this effort.”

Nasrallah’s explanation suggests that Hariri’s claim that the deal had been in place for months and that Hezbollah had neglected their promises was false.  Nevertheless, Nasrallah is careful to sound relaxed by this (“nevertheless it’s good”) as though Hezbollah’s reputation little mattered in the larger matter of progressing the terms of the settlement.  He gives the idea that Hezbollah allowed their integrity to be called into question for the sake of maintaining amicable relations with Hariri – in other words, for the good of Lebanon.  Whether true or not – Hezbollah are not a group likely to allow their dignity to be compromised – Nasrallah certainly does the job of laying blame at Hariri’s door effectively.  He makes Hariri sound untrustworthy, whimsical and, worst of all, not ready to sacrifice some of his own desires for the country he governs. 

Naturally this is mere prelude to Nasrallah’s real culprits: the USA and Israel.  The USA, he says, did something to reverse Hariri’s course.  Whether they exercised power over him or lead him to fear, they influence him into cancelling the settlement.  According to Nasrallah’s presentation, then, it was the “meddling” of the US that prevented the settlement from taking place; this, he said, was because they did not want an Arab settlement taking place.

“It is obvious that the Americans and the Israelis were against the Arab effort and they bargained on its failure because they had in mind that the crisis was complicated and eventually, they will not need to interfere.  However, when they realized that the process was yielding positive results, they interfered in a decisive way.  This is why the efforts stopped so suddenly.”  This is also why, Nasrallah added, opposition ministers decided to resign from the government.

In blaming Hariri for the settlement’s failure, whether because of America or not, Nasrallah is discrediting a man he believes must be removed from the picture of Lebanese politics.  He paints him as an American pawn not to be trusted in order to undermine support for his possible re-election as prime minister.  “There is no doubt that certain Lebanese parties had worked extensively to thwart the Arab effort and lashed out at the King because they sensed he was very serious in completing the understanding.  Either Hariri and his team did not want to proceed with the deal but had to under Saudi pressure, and eventually went to the Americans and others to pressure the Saudis to stop the effort, or they were supporting the king but the American will was against it.  Either way, Hariri and his team have established the fact that they cannot be trusted and is not reliable to help Lebanon or lead the country out of any impasse.”

He discredits Hariri further by refraining from stating exactly Hariri’s own terms in the SS settlement, saying only that “the Lebanese will discover that among them is a term or two in line with Lebanon’s interest; beside this, all other terms serve the interest of Hariri’s political and security team.”  And of course: “Still, we dealt with them very positively.”

Nasrallah ended his speech with a warning.  It is one which, apart from a sentence blaming Israel that comes so unexpectedly and so unsupported by evidence it can only sound absurd, showcases his persuasive eloquence impressively.

Hezbollah “will not let anyone damage our reputation and dignity and we will not allow anyone to conspire against us or accuse us of spilling the blood of martyr Rafik Hariri. We will act according to what will be released. How? It depends on our estimation of interests. I have no doubt that Israel killed Hariri and carried out the assassinations in Lebanon. We have confronted wars of all kinds, military, security and assassinations. I reassure those who are still after this project that they are miscalculating. Consultations may bring back Hariri, but this is the beginning of a new stage. We tell those who believe they can use the indictment to target the resistance that they are extensively miscalculating.”

“I will have another speech in light of what Bellemare will issue in the next couple of days,” Nasrallah concluded.

This article is written neither to condemn nor support Hezbollah, merely to demonstrate the intelligent rhetoric of its leader.  Whether one agrees or not is a separate matter.

Lebanon: what now?

17 Jan

Communication is necessary: Much of the commentary about Lebanon since the collapse of Hariri’s government on January 12th has unfortunately fallen into one of two categories: either pro-US and anti-Hezbollah, or the opposite.

Some commentators – such as Tony Badran (http://nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=229979) and Jonathan Spyer (http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=203567) – see the messy political situation in Lebanon as a way in which America might extend its influence there, thereby minimising Iran’s sway.  Spyer descirbes Hezbollah as “a long-term Iranian project designed to build the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Arab world by engaging in conflict with Israel.”  Although various pro-US commentators see Lebanon in terms of Iran or as a means to destroying an Iranian enemy, Hezbollah, who have Iranian support, are at their core and in their essence Lebanese.  Hassan Nasrallah, the militant group’s charismatic leader, would raise unamused eyebrows at the notion of his party as the “project” of anybody.

Badran states that “the notion that a compromise with Damascus on an issue as critical as the STL was possible … was silly.” On the contrary, the notion that such a compromise is silly, is sillier.  Whether one likes it or not, Syria is a crucial player in Lebanese politics; denying that does not make it go away.  As one of Hezbollah’s key supporters, Syria must necessarily be consulted in order for a realistic solution to be found.  Badran also fails to recognise the irony of sentences such as “This is where the US has to step up and take the lead … the Obama administration would do well to keep these ever-increasing cooks [Syria, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar] out of the Lebanese kitchen.”  It is for the Lebanese – as, to continue the metaphor, head chef – to choose which cooks they allow in their kitchen.  America is a player with a strong sphere of influence and therefore must be one of the ‘cooks’, but for the Lebanese to devolve decision-making power to a country that has so little sympathy for one of Lebanon’s most significant and certainly most powerful political parties, Hezbollah, would be absurd.

Michael Williams, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, pointed out last week that “my work [as the representative of the UN Secretary General] would be impossible without a dialogue with Hezbollah.”  Dismissing the party, whether as a terrorist group or a group with whom compromise should not be sought, will not allow the situation in Lebanon to progress.

Hezbollah expert Sa’ad Ghorayeb said that “ideally, Hezbollah wants Hariri [Sa’ad, son of the murdered Rafik] as prime minister, it wants to maintain resistance to Israel, it wants the U.S. to stop intervening in Lebanese affairs, and it wants civil peace and coexistence.”

However, Hezbollah’s hope for the ending of American intervention in Lebanon is little more than wishful thinking.  It was reported yesterday that the Obama warned Lebanese President Michel Suleiman that the nomination of a March 8 (Hezbollah) camp candidate to form a new Cabinet would jeopardize all U.S. aid programs to Lebanon and the basis of partnership between the two countries.  In other words, if Hezbollah get their way – which would be a democratic move, however unpopular with foreign powers – the US will, at the very least, respond with an intense destabilisation campaign.

The statements were accompanied by US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s assertions that the United States is committed to diplomatic efforts to tackle the Lebanese crisis, including French ones aimed at forming an international group to support the Lebanese government.

Much of the US’ anti Hezbollah rhetoric works on the idea that Hezbollah cannot present itself as a resistance group while it is preventing the tribunal from “discovering the truth about the assassination of a prominent figure in Lebanon’s history.”

Meanwhile the importance of the international community continues to be demonstrated.  Walid Jumblatt spent the weekend in Syria, in talks with President Bashar al-Assaad on the political crisis.  The two men stressed the “importance of staying aware of the risks foreign interventions carry in the region and that the region’s inhabitants be the ones to make decisions and reach solutions.”  Jumblatt has said that he will again nominate Hariri for the PM role.

On Sunday meanwhile, diplomats from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Spain and Russia all pledged their countries’ support for Lebanon’s stability.  Caretaker Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri met with Secretary General of the Spanish Presidency Bernardino Leon, in the presence of Ambassador Juan Carlos Gafo, as well as Egyptian and Russian ambassadors Ahmad Fouad al-Bidiawi and Alexander Zesypkin.  US Ambassador Maura Connelly, who met Sunday with Zahle MP Nicholas Fattouch, reiterated her country’s support for the divisive UN tribunal probing the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

An unidentified European diplomat told AFP on Friday that France had requested the formation of an emergency “contact group,” consisting of representatives from Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, the US, Qatar, Turkey “and possibly other countries with a stake in Lebanon.”

Caretaker Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar announced this morning that he expected the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to refer the indictment in Hariri’s assassination case to the pre-trial judge on Monday.

It has been said over the last two days that the STL will indict Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Wali al Faqih (jurisconsult or Supreme Religious Leader) for issuing the order to assassinate Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  President al-Aassad, and his brother-in-law, Syrian Intelligence Chief Assef Shawkat, also reportedly played key roles in organizing Hariri’s assassination.

The talks on forming a new Lebanese government which were due to begin this morning have been postponed for one week, according to a statement from President Suleiman’s office.  Lebanese politicians said that the consultations on a new government could be delayed because of a summit in Damascus later today, where the leaders of Syria, Qatar and Turkey will discuss Lebanon’s political crisis.

A Step Back, A Step Forth …

13 Jan

Lebanon has entered a new phase of government – and yet one that has never been older.

President Michel Suleiman formally accepted the resignations of eleven cabinet ministers this morning, finalising the dissolution of the government.  He called on the cabinet to continue in a caretaker capacity until a new government has been formed.  Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, son of former PM Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, will continue in his position in the meantime.

Hezbollah, who timed their resignation from the cabinet yesterday to clash with Premier Hariri’s meeting with US President Barack Obama, have called for a new prime minister to take Hariri’s place.  Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Shi’a militant group said that the resignations had taken place because the “expected result of the international tribunal for the former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is aimed at the resistance [Hezbollah].”

Describing the younger Hariri as “part of the problem, not the solution,” Hezbollah also said that it would not allow him to remain Prime Minister.  “He is not fit to have this responsibility, as experience has proven.”

Nasrallah did, however, discount any chance of a civil war, saying “there will never be a war between the Sunnis and Shi’ites.”

War is indeed unlikely.  The last thing any Lebanese want is a return to the civil strife of 1975-1990.  And the country can function surprisingly well without a government: society do not rely on their politicians to keep things running smoothly.  Lebanon has a history of continuing in spite of its government rather than because of it.

Foreign powers pose the greater threat to peace.  Follwing yesterday’s resignations, the White House released a sharp statement describing the March 8 coalition as “demonstrating their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people.”

Quite how the US administration can claim to know those aspirations is muddling.  The rhetoric itself is clumsy: “all”? One thing most commentators like to trumpet about Lebanon is that it is ‘sectarian,’ ‘diverse,’ a ‘country of contrasts.’  With a good 30% of the country, if not more, backing Hezbollah, such a statement can only emphasise how little America understands Lebanon’s political and religious complexities; or, worse, how little it is willing to give the impression it understands.  Having long described Hezbollah as a terrorist group, the US has no wish to allow it legitimacy.

Indeed, the statement seems to ignore the fact that Hezbollah were part of the government.  The problem arose from a disagreement within the government as to how to handle the UN tribunal investigating the elder Hariri’s assassination.  Hezbollah wanted Lebanon to withdraw all support; Hariri wanted the tribunal to continue.

While Lebanon may be used to being government-less, this is undeniably a step backwards.  As Arab League chief Secretary General Amr Moussa said today in Doha, “we don’t want Lebanon to get back to square one. We thought we already left this station.”  He was accompanying US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her tour of Doha.

Yesterday Clinton described her tour of the Middle East as an “apology tour” aimed at undoing the damage caused by the Wikileaks release of 250,000 US diplomatic cables.  Wikileaks had revealed that some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, were urging a tougher line against Iran.  The cables also disclosed Saudi suggestions for a pan-Arab force to crush Hezbollah.

Moussa, however, pointed out that Hezbollah – and indeed many Lebanese – hopes for an Arab resolution are unrealistic.  “All of us, Arabs, Europeans and the United States will have to work together in order to reach a kind of compromise that would maintain the possibility of having a stable government in Lebanon,” he said.  He also called for the tribunal to continue, saying that it should be “above politics.”  “Justice should have its way and Lebanon must have a government,” he added.
Today’s As-Safir, a daily Lebanese newspaper, said in an editorial “Lebanon entered a new phase yesterday, an open-ended one characterized by a profound and long-term political and governmental crisis.”  An-Nahar, another daily, agreed that there was “no easy way out of Lebanon’s new political crisis.”  “No one is under the illusion that the open crisis will come to an end anytime soon.”  However, most Lebanese press do agree that full-scale violence is unlikely.

So what next? Hezbollah has a majority in the 128-member Parliament, which enables it to put forward a candidate of its own for prime minister.  Today at noon, pro-Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad announced that the opposition will name “a personality with a history of national resistance to head the new government.”  Under Lebanon’s constitution, the PM post go to a Sunni.  It is rumoured that Hezbollah will propose the longtime Sunni leader Omar Karami.

With the failure of the previous government, Hezbollah support on the ground is thicker than most assume.  Some are hoping that Hezbollah will assume power and implement its 2009 Manifesto.  Various Lebanese civil society NGO’s have urged Hezbollah to do more for Lebanon’s increasingly fragile environment, as well as fix Lebanon’s water, electricity and infrastructure problems.  The group had also promised to end the corruption in which many of Lebanon’s politicians are involved.  There is also speculation that, if Hezbollah rule, Palestinian refugees will be granted the rights – and the paperwork – to work and own a home.