18.1.07

Angry Arab's Canadian tour: The Middle East between History and Narratives

I started reading Angry Arab's blog early in 2005. I was planning to visit Lebanon in the following summer after 24 years of absence, many hesitations, and a reluctance to confront my painful memories of the six years I witnessed of the civil war between 1975 and 1981. The year 2005 was throwing Lebanon again in a new phase of instability where divergent forces were going to reclaim their share of power in the new equation prompted by the assassination of Hariri. That's not a civil war proper but a state close to civil war with the usual information manipulation. One thing I learned during the civil war in Lebanon was that official news channels cannot be trusted. Very early, and that's the only positive thing the Lebanese civil war infused in me, I started doing comparative reading of news sources and judge for myself.

When I started checking regularly and on a daily basis Lebanon news in 2005, I found in Angry Arab's blog an independant spirit behind the news with a high level of political and social consciousness and a touch of iconoclastic irony. When I heard that professor As'ad Abukhalil, the man behind Angry Arab, was coming to Canada to speak on the last Lebanese war I was determined to listen to what he will have to say on the subject, even though I am familiar with his blog. The nearest location for me to listen to his talk was Ottawa where I work and live part of the week.

The reason I am writing a critical account of his talk is that professor Abukhalil did offer something new, something you won't find on his blog. It wasn't only political commentary, neither a pure academic talk with the historical, social and political perspectives intertwined. It was, in my opinion, a project, an intellectual project for Lebanon and the Middle East. That's really new because what most people, even his admirers, hold against Angry Arab is that he only criticises but never offers prospective solutions for the problems he mentions. That's particularly crucial for the Israeli-Arab conflict because our generation, Abukhalil's and mine, is starting to despair about seeing any solution to the conflict in its lifetime. I didn't find Abukhalil particularly desperate, neither angry. He spoke calmly looking at the audience, and only rarely glancing at his notes, for about an hour before taking every question in the room.

'The Israeli War on Lebanon: Causes and Consequences'.
At the start of his talk he insisted on the importance of a background story for the Israeli-Lebanese war and on the fact that this background is unknown to most people in the west. But this is not everybody's background. The one he is proposing is enmeshed in a Narrative. Abukhalil's talk will be an attempt at constructing this Narrative, not only as a rallying story with which many Arabs can identify but also as an explanatory paradigm for the Israeli-Arab conflict. I want to elaborate here on the importance of a Narrative and why this proposal constitutes in my opinion a positive project for us Arabs, Lebanese and Palestinians. Suddenly it appeared to me that there is no unifying Narrative for the Israeli-Arab conflict on the side of Arabs, Palestinians, and Lebanese, let alone in western media. The Narrative of this long history of suffering that is Palestinian history and ours is fragmented while the zionist Narrative, the Narrative of our ennemies, is unified and multiple at the same time. The fact also that the west had adopted the zionist narratives renders the making of ours even more difficult because we are always faced with the narratives of the Other and defined by them. That's a normal outcome for colonised populations, one might aknowledge, but what is not normal is the absence of our will to adopt an opposing Narrative. All we do, as Arabs, is react to the zionist narratives and let ourselves be defined by them.

According to Narrative Theory and Personal Identity main contributor, Paul Ricoeur, we can view a narration on the self in two complementary ways: an abstract representation of who we are, resulting from our interactions with others, and a reflexive dynamic construction of the Self, through time and space, also resulting from our interactions with others and our actions in the real world. This is where History differs from a Narrative. History retains only what is externally recognised as 'obejctive' components of a story; facts and their relations, causes and consequences. A Narrative contains much more; it contains not only past facts about ourselves but current and future facts about ourselves within the dynamic construction of our identity as a population. A Narrative is an ongoing story about ourselves and who we are, bridging the past with the present and the future. The most important feature of a Narrative of a conflict is the beginning. The zionist Narrative has marked the beginning of the Israeli-Arab conflict at the Israeli-Arab war of 1967. Gone are 1948 and the dispossession of the Paletsinian land, the massacres and the tragedies of Palestinians sent to Arab countries to live in refugee camps, in which they still live until today. The zionist Narrative decided that the beginning of the latest Israeli agression on Lebanon is due to the rise of Iranian influence and Hezbollah. Gone are the invasions by the thousands of Lebanese land since the 1950s and the continual destruction of the traditional agrarian societies in south Lebanon. Gone are the savage invasion of 1982, the occupation of Beyrouth and the massacres of Sabra and Chatila. Gone are the meddling in Lebanese politics and the installation in 1982 of a puppet president in Lebanon to sign a peace agreement with Israel on its own terms...During all these events, Hezbollah was non existent as a political and military entity. And each time the official zionist Narrative changes the beginning of a story, it escapes accountability issues and do not deal with contradictions because contradictions exist inside one Narrative and not between narratives. Zionist narratives for the Israeli-Arab conflict have abounded, and with their propaganda machine, they were able to insert themselves in the western minds. However, despite being multiple and different, these narratives have some constant features, claims Abukhalil; they always portray Arabs and Palestinians in a negative way. From the non existing, to the barbarians of the desert, to present day Islamo-fascists and terrorists, Arabs have been defined, and they never tried to define themselves outside pure reactions to these clichés. Either they were intimidated by these definitions and they shy from it to the extent some Arabs living in the west deny being actually Arabs, or they try to please and be submissive. We have this syndrome in Lebanon where part of the population claims to descend from the Phoenicians. Better choose distant glorious relatives than close present day pariahs.

How to explain then the causes of the latest Israeli war on Lebanon ? The rise of Iranian influence in the region ? No, explains Abukhalil. Although Iran is certainly trying to buy some influence in the region and to raise its profile as a leader among Arabs. An over reaction to the capture of two soldiers ? No, this cannot be true because in the past, Israel used to negociate for its captured soldiers. And a reaction does not last 33 days. Is it a planned war from Washington, as some suggested ? Yes and No. There was probably some planning and coordination between the two states but the latest Israeli agression on Lebanon is one in a series of agressions that started with the foundation of Israel and were not restricted to one Arab state, one time, one event, one specific cause. The Israeli state displaced palestinians and, more than sixty years later, still fight them. It invaded Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, bombed Iraq and now wants to bomb Iran. Regional hegemony, colonialist attitude, and a desire to dictate terms of agreement on Arab states, are the major drive of Israeli regional policy, and these features are within the zionist project. Zionism was born with them. Therefore, the latest Israeli agression on Lebanon, Hezbollah or not, is not the first, and will not be the last.

After the talk, many people from the audience were eager to know how to disentangle the problem ? Abukhalil offered hope in the form of a citation taken from Antonio Gramsci and mentioned often by Edward Said: 'Pessimism of the spirit, Optimism of the will'.
Presently, with corrupt Arab governments, Arabs need a lot of will.

Let us not be defined by zionist narratives, it is time to construct one for ourselves. A Narrative should be constructed first by not forgetting the past, building on it, choosing a defining moment in the past. This defining moment is the end of European colonialism, after more than 500 years of Ottoman rule. This is a unifying moment in the history of Arab countries, when Arabs must have started their wars of liberation and modernisation, but were prevented from doing so by a new ferocious colonial power. This new colonial power was helped by some already existent Arab puppet rulers who were only preoccupied by their privileges. These rulers agreed to the Balfour declaration and, in exchange, were given by the British free hands in the fertile crescent including Palestine. The aborted 'decolonisation' is the defining moment of our counterzionist Narrative.

A Narrative also is a place where our actions are told, positive and heroic actions, not actions of submission, cowardice, and betrayal against our own people, and certainly not actions of terrorism à la Bin laden, and not actions of suicide bombings. We desperately need heroic actions, resistance actions. The resisatnce and resilience of the Palestinian people, the successive success of Hezbollah and Lebanese progressive forces against Israel, social and political reforms in Arab countries, are actions that can be the pillars of our Narrative. Also, fighting Anti-semitism and helping any just cause in the rest of the world, building networks of solidarity and hope and working toward implementing multireligious, multiethnic societies in the Arab world where freedom of religion is granted and individuals rights are guarded by a secular state.

This is our task, and this should be our destiny and our Narrative if we want History to remember us positively. And how History will remember us will be the outcome of our Narrative.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sophia,

This is a wonderful, intelligent, vibrant, hopeful piece you have just written. You have proved to me that words can in fact tell our story, after thinking for the longest time that I have lost the ability to argue our point of view, our Narrative; I let myself be defined by the Narrative of the Other, and reacted only to that. I always felt there was something I am not seeing, something whose importance I am not grasping - and now I know. From now on I will not react or attempt to debunk falsifications, obfuscations in the usual academic way that really doesn't really touch the tip of the iceburg. I will go even further and help create our Narrative, one that will automatically debunk those renditions, while simultaneously telling our story. Afterall, as Edward Said once said, Power lies in the ability to Narrate and block other Narratives. We shall unshackle our Narrative(S) and let it (them) soar to roam the world.
Thank you so much.

Sophia said...

Anonymous,

Many Thanks for your appreciation.

Behemoth101 said...

I don't buy into the Said "contradictions" approach... but that's just me.

I rather see the modern Middle East narrative as being written by the supply of artillery - starting with Lawrence of Arabia

naj said...

Sophia, I finally had a chance to sit and read this attentively. Thank you!

I am thinking, Israel will Nuke Iran, and the narrative will become that Ahmadinejad would have wiped Israel off of the map, had Israel not preempted THE stike! And when I tried to counter this narrative in discussion with a self-aclaimed objective shcolar, I was quickly dismissed as "biased" against Israel and under indoctrination of the Iranian regime because I grew up under it!!!

You see what is making me utterly pessimistic these days? Friends who have lived with me for years, who have listened to my narrative (about Iran, for example), pictorial and verbal and actual, and yet ask me the trivial questions that shows all I have said and shown has fallen on deaf ears!

If a friend who sees my narrative in action cannot reform his mindset from the false tatoos imprinted by the CNN, how can I hope anyone else would?

Merkin said...

Very good posting on CiF led me to this site.
Excellent work.

Sophia said...

Merkin,

What is CiF ?

Elizabeth said...

I liked this post Sophia.

I sympathize with Naj. Some people aren't capable of absorbing information that doesn't fit into their preconceived world view. There's no point in wasting time on those people. They are psychologically or neurologically incapable of logical analysis. Just move on, and find people who are interested in what you have to say.

Sophia said...

Elizabeth,

Thank you so much. At the same time, you gave Naj the reasonable answer that I was looking for...

MarxistFromLebanon said...

naj, I highly recommend you check the "third force" in Iran, I am sure you will find it interesting as I respect that force over there.

Dear Sophia, I will read the post tomorrow morning as my eyes are closing due to excessive readings for my paper :)

MFL

Wolfie said...

Sophia,

I think Merkin is referring to "Comment is Free" on the Guardian website :

http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/about.html

Excellent post BTW.

Behemoth101,

And I don't quite buy into the "Lawrence of Arabia" narrative either, the ME is much more complicated than that with a considerable history as a world player. It still is today, just non-existent leadership prevents the people from benefiting from it. Some of the events to which you allude have happened before and before, just under a different Empire.

Sophia said...

Wolfie, Merkin,

Thanks, of course. I sometimes leave a comment on articles in the comment section. My advantage is that when the new daily edition is published, it is before midnight here in Canada, and when I have the chance to read the Guardian before going to bed, I always leave a comment on things which are of interest to me before the comment section is invaded.

Wolfie,

You are right. Did you read my article 'Alleged Lawrence of Arabia syndrome among British leftists...' It is exactly about this...It is in the permanent links section under the rubrique 'My selection of articles on this blog'.

 
Since March 29th 2006