Monday, November 22, 2010

In defence of elitism: the American University of Beirut

By Karl Sharro

Published with permission from Karlremarks

I was amused to read this philistine attack on the American University of Beirut by Jana Nakhal in Al-Akhbar newspaper, The AUB and Beirut: One Side Love. Nakhal, 'an urban-planning engineer' (sic), subjects the AUB to a shrill anti-colonial examination uncovering it in the process as an 'accelerating factor in the popular acceptance of colonial ideas, tastes and concepts'. (Presumably things like engineering, medicine and architecture which colonialism forced us to accept).

Nakhal is upset that the AUB seems to be cut-off from its urban context and is not interested in having any meaningful interaction with the areas that surround it. Its students apparently impose their tastes on the areas around and 'take nothing in return'. The proof? None of the students pick up the distinctive local accent of the area! The irony of course is when the AUB was established in 1866, the neighbourhoods around did not even exist. The construction of the university campus in what was then a forested area sparked off the urban development of the neighbouring areas.

The wall that surrounds the campus irks Nakhal, it is a physical barrier between the university and the city but, aside from security, the wall has an important symbolic role. It marks a space that is dedicated for learning and the pursuit of knowledge and one in which a different set of rules apply. This separation does not imply lack of concern for the preoccupations of the city dwellers but it creates a distance necessary for critical examination.

Higher education thrives on challenging students’ assumptions and worldviews and on providing them with the critical tools to develop their own thinking and ideas. The contemporary obsession with relevance self-reinforcement is patronising and ultimately counter-productive. Nakhal is echoing not only this contemporary bias but also a certain mindset in Lebanon and the Arab world that is deeply suspicious of ‘alien’ ideas. This rhetoric has traditionally relied on pseudo-Marxist and anti-colonial ideas to justify the insecurity brought about by exposure to modernity at the end of Ottoman rule.

I was not surprised then that Nakhal quoted Frantz Fanon to expose the AUB as the guardian of imperial values: ‘The colonial-bourgeois thinkers in universities persistently uphold essential Western values’. I am not quite sure what those values are, but I think she might be talking about Western concepts like gravity and the laws of thermo-dynamics. They always sounded suspiciously ethno-centric to me. It’s also amusing to hear the resonance of Radio Moscow in the mindless repetition of words like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘colonial’, but let’s not forget that Al-Akhbar’s dedication to the cause of international revolution dictates certain stylistic preferences.

But why the AUB and why now? Why subject the most successful academic institution in Lebanon to this rabid attack? The AUB throve despite severely adverse conditions because of its independence and its dedication to excellence and academic rigour. It works precisely because it was not swallowed up by the Lebanese system and because it managed to fend off the intrusions of the Lebanese ‘groups’ and their lumpish presence. It is elitist in the best sense of the word, creating a space for critical thinking and debate that thousands have enjoyed and benefited from.

Back in the early 90s when I was a student at the AUB, I had to watch the sad spectacle of the great historian Kamal Salibi being rudely forced out of his class by an Amal movement ‘operative’ who was a constant presence on campus. That, and the many assassination and kidnappings that took place on campus, was the consequence of subjecting the AUB to the power of the Lebanese ‘people’ or the thugs that represent them at any rate. Salibi’s fault was that he wasn’t sufficiently moved by whatever grievance that Amal deemed we must all commemorate to stop his class.

But Nakhal seems to be oblivious to this troubled history; if the AUB doesn’t embrace Uncle Deek then it’s committing a sin against our folk. She is particularly affronted that an AUB student mispronounces ‘keshek’, that staple of Lebanese diet that embodies our identity and our customs. I was reminded of the diatribe at the end of Ziad Rahbani’s Shi Fashel in which the folklore creature chides the Lebanese for their sentimental attachment to their traditions and rejection of modernity. Ziad’s sentiments are of course unapologetic: he is against the backwardness represented by this sentimental attachment to our rural past.

Three decades later, Nakhal wants us to embrace this backward heritage and undermine the independence of our greatest seat of learning. Time to celebrate the keshek.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Lebanese Sexual Revolution: Work in Progress

Joseph El-Khoury

In her Nowlebanon article ‘Dangerous Liaisons: Lebanon’s culture of adultery’ Aline Sara seems to hint at some social phenomenon unique to Lebanon. This is in line with the conviction that many Lebanese hold in the uniqueness of their country in both positive and negative terms. Adultery is most likely to be as old as marriage itself and as ubiquitous. The visibility of the act and the consequences attached to will vary between cultures and within cultures, depending on the social or religious context. What many agree on is that post civil war a particular section of the Lebanese population has ceased to treat the issue as taboo. In contrast to neighbouring Arab countries, adultery has become a casual topic in stand-up comedy shows (chansonniers) and a subject of open conversation in trendy salons. This new state of affairs does not extend to the majority of the Lebanese but is most likely limited to the elite that dominate the cultural and financial landscape, occasionally dragging those who operate on its periphery. These ‘westernised’ elites have tended to acquire what they consider to be Western habits without necessarily accepting the wider context. One cannot speak of the evolution in sexual behaviour in Europe and the rest of the Western world without referring to 1968 and the social revolution that shook the establishment and challenged the moral order inherited from the 19th Century. Sexual liberation was only part of the picture and a natural consequence to the rise of the Individual whose priority is to satisfy his basic needs, whether through consumerism or the constant seeking of pleasure (Which in its extreme form was labelled the Sex, drugs and Rock’n Roll lifestyle). In parallel, long established dogmas on gender, class and race were also challenged shaping the way to the postmodern world we currently live in.

Now going back to the Lebanese. Most seem to have remembered from that era the Bellbottoms trousers and mini-skirts, while others briefly dabbled in drugs and/or progressive ideologies only to quickly revert to the most conservative of attitudes personally and politically once the streets had been taken over by gunmen in 1975. The rest of the 70s and 80s were spent surviving rather than in self-actualisation and self-discovery (refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). This in my mind explains why the Lebanese seem to have undertaken their sexual revolution, albeit an amputated one, in the late 1990s. The loss of direction on so many other levels since 2005 and the feeling of stagnation that will invariably lead to a back to the future scenario have led to a nihilistic, short-termist approach to living and loving where hedonism features heavily. While it shares many features with the global ethos of the 1960s, this nihilistic hedonism is not liberating but auto-destructive. The people of this small disorientated nation are bound on making Love and War... while maintaining the veneer of traditional respectability.

In the article, the author further seeks the opinion of a local Psychoanalyst who claims that “Experts will tell you that presently, Europeans are increasingly returning to conventions and a traditional view of marriage, with more awareness of the damage of divorce, risks of AIDS and STDs, as well as the effects of a failed marriage on children.”

It is unclear who these experts are as the statistics on marriage in developed societies are alarming (that if you do believe that marriages are essential to a functioning civilisation) with consistently dwindling numbers over the past 40 years. In addition the latest research emphasises that the damaging effect on children is less the consequence of divorce than of  the conflict that accompanies the process, whether parents remain together or not. As a fellow professional, I would not have chosen to impose my moral views in formulating an expert opinion by misquoting research. I would argue that the problem here goes beyond marriage and adultery. The fact is that relationships in general, whether romantic or not, have been damaged in Lebanon and come to mirror the rotting political situation. This is a society  going through a painful transition with all the upheaveals involved. Nonetheless, I would invite the Lebanese to complete their sexual revolution as going back is rarely a viable option in human behaviour. Maybe something good would come out of it in breaking the psychological chains that have kept the country in a state of crisis since independence.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

ميشال هولبك: كتابة الكراهية

خالد برّاج

كانت الصدمة كبيرة هذا الصباح عندما علمت أنّ جائزة غونكور للأدب قد مُنِحت هذا العام إلى الروائي الفرنسي ميشال هولبك عن روايته الجديدة " الأرض و الخريطة ".

صحيح أنّ الفرصة لم تسنح لي إلى الأن بمطالعة الرواية الجديدة لكِني أكاد أجزم و وفقاً لروايات ميشال هولبك السابقة (الجزئيات البدائية, الرصيف و غيرها) و أرائه أنّ الكاتب الفرنسي سار على نفس المنوال ببث الأفكار العنصرية تجاه الأشخاص من أصول أفريقية و الحضّ على كراهية المسلمين و السخرية من الدين الإسلامي و إستعمال أبشع العبارات فيما يخصّ نضال الشعب الفلسطيني و حضّ الحكومة الإسرائيلية على التخلُص من هذه " القاذورات" وفقاً لتعبيره.

لم يكتفِ الروائي الفرنسي بنشر أفكاره الفاشية في روايته فهو غالباً ما ظهر خلال برامج حوارية على شاشات الفضائيات الأوروبية مبدياً أراء عنصرية تجاه شعوب و أديان منتقِداً جوهر الدين الإسلامي واصفاً على سبيل المثال الأشخاص من جذور أفريقية " بقرودٍ و سعادين بقضيبٍ كبير!

يقول الكاتب جيل بيرول (و هو من أصدقاء ميشال هولبك): " لا ينبغي أن نعطي أهمية سياسية لما يكتبه هولبك لسبب واحد وهو أنه ليس كاتبا سياسياً، بل يتفاعل مع المجتمع بتلقائية، مشيراً في نفس الوقت إلى أن سلين (بالإشارة إلى الكاتب الفرنسي لوي فرديناند سيلين) كان هو أيضا كاتباً معروفا وكبيرًا جدًا، بالرغم من أنه يعتبر من أكبر المنتقدين لليهود".

لكن جيل بيرول على خطأ فلا يوجد هنا فصل بين الإجتماعي و السياسي و المحتوى الأدبي لروايةٍ معيّنة, إنّ الروائي الذي ينشر من خلال روايته أراءه و رؤيته للمجتمع و الإنسان على شكل صورًا مختلفة وفقاً لطبيعة الرواية الأدبية و لمحتوى القصة يُصبِح أشبه بداعية أفكار لا يُمكِنه التنصّل فيما بعد من تلك الأراء الواردة في نصِه الأدبي.

إلاّ أنّه لا بدّ من التفريق بين المشهد الروائي و التصريح الوصفي ضمن الرواية في النصّ الأدبي , في المشهد الروائي يقوم الكاتب بإستعراض أفكار و أراء أبطال روايته ضمن مستلزمات الرواية (مثلاً: رجل عنصري يُبدي أراء متطرِفة تجاه أديان أو مجموعة من الأشخاص من ضمن شخصيته الروائية) أمّا في التصريح الوصفي يستند الكاتب إلى شخصياته الروائية ليضيف و تمرير أراء شخصية لا صلة لها بالمشهد الروائي (مثلاً: القول على لسان الكاتب و ليس على لسان أحد شخصيات الرواية أنّ الدين الإسلامي هو دين همجي و أحمق).

التصريح الوصفي واضح بشكل جليّ في مُجمل أعمال ميشال هولبك و من هنا لا يُمكن وصف هولبك بأنّه روائي فحسب بل أيضاً أرائه الصريحة من خلال روايته تعطيه طابع كاتب سياسي تُضاف إليها أرائه و نظرياته خلال البرامج الحوارية التلفزيونية.

و لهولبك نماذج أخرى مشابهة في عالمنا العربي نجدها غالباً في مواقف و تصاريح التنظيمات الإسلاموفاشية و هي كما هولبك (الذي يسخر من الدين الإسلامي) تسخر و تحرِض على الدين المسيحي و تدعو إلى الإقتصاص من المسيحيين أينما وجدوا.

لا أعرف كيف تُوصف روايات تحرِض على الكراهية و العنصرية بأعمال أدبية و تُعطى شهادات و جوائز لأشخاص مثل لوي فرديناند سيلين, ميشال هولبك و غيرهم من الكارهين للإنسان و الإنسانية, إنّ الأدب يفقُد قيمته عندما يُصبح منبراً لنشر الكراهية و الحقد و العنصرية بين البشر.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hariri Pop Idol

By Joseph El-Khoury

Yesterday night I came face to face with Saad Hariri for the first time. I had shaken hands in a past life with his late father more than 12 years ago and was looking forward to draw a comparison between father and son. The Lebanese Embassy in London provided the backdrop to an evening reception where the banking industry was overrepresented. Having sampled the canapés and exchanged opinions on the resilience of the Lebanese economy, they laid down their glasses to clap in their hero as he appeared past a group of heavily botoxed ladies. A friend pointed out that Saad Hariri looked a defeated man. Perhaps I thought! I rather found that his tone, posture and demeanour still revealed a degree of discomfort in his role, despite the 5 years of experience as heir to his father’s political legacy.

There is no doubting the young prime minister's accessibility. A credit to someone raised in the ivory towers of wealth and in a region where leaders’ interactions with the common people is rehearsed up to the smallest handshake. As the ceremony was coming to an end, we had full access to the figure if not the man. The bodyguards lay off a bit as he was allowed to bathe among the small crowd of socialites. Some chose to immortalise the moment by posing with him to which he complied with ease. Another friend initiated an absurd conversation in English. The choice of language and topic was probably triggered by nerves but Mr Hariri failed to pick up on it in any way, shape or form. In keeping with the overall evening, his performance remained as flat as a half full can of fizzy drink. Neither the cliché reference to the Lebanon of brotherly love and chic restaurants could turn things around or the lacklustre use of colloquial Arabic to establish rapport with an audience unsure of its own values. In my mind, the unavoidable comparison was one between Hariri and his archrival (in a comic book superheroes kind of way) Mr Nasrallah, who also falls back on colloquial Arabic to emphasize his well-articulated points. The difference being that Mr Nasrallah manages to be entertaining in his sarcasm, buoyed by the confidence of those who are driven by ideology and have the means to implement it. Mr Hariri could be excused for failing to motivate a haphazard group not necessarily committed to his political vision when Mr Nasrallah commands blind authority among hundreds of thousands. This has not always been the case and yesterday’s interaction highlights the breakdown in the contract between the March 14th leaders and their former power base: A contract that was laid down in 2005 and undermined through errors, retreats, betrayals and inconsistencies for which Hariri and his band of courtesans share responsibility. The lack of vision and the absence of a consistent message might explain why the claps were half-hearted and the eyes firmly on the trays of Lebanese delicacies being passed around by oblivious waiters.