publication design: Kai Udema
As a response to the dissolution of the dreams of greatness I was fed growing up, and facing a reality where I cannot find a job to start the life I aspired to after graduating from university, I decided to leave. The desire and the decision to leave, while voluntary and personal, are related directly and indirectly to social, political, and financial events, some of which predate me, and others predate the concept of Lebanon as a polity. As I left, an uprising erupted back in Lebanon out the despair of an intensifying economic crisis whose beginnings led me to leave.
“Leaving, Returning” is a reflection on my struggle to reconcile my decision to leave and the feeling of abandoning, first my family, second an imaginary nation I was taught to love, and third the fight to change reality without escaping it. The film starts by questioning the construct of a nation state, and investigating the construction of the concept of Lebanon as a nation in my mind through memories. Through these temporal projections, the work ventures to contextualise this constructed image in history, and relates it to my decision to leave; which addresses my feeling of abandoning the nation. As a replacement for the nation, the project contemplates social relations (of alliance) as a means for the expansion of possibilities through difference, without the need for imagined similarities like national identity; which addresses my feeling of abandoning my family. Finally, an uprising after years of stagnation and compliance made me question the limits of what is possible and with that my decision to leave. From here, the work reflects with a certain anxiety on my engagement with my reality, by questioning the value of abstract worlds (of imagination and of social media) in a political context.
When the world I was existing in became an abstraction, a memory reproduced in my head, reality crumbles. Reality crumbles as I reconstruct my world from a new territoriality, a new world that embraces the memory of the old one. The world that I knew before I left Lebanon only exists as a psychosocial or digital memory. While reconstructing a world anew I wait in an imaginary world where both my old world and my new one coexist. In this immaterial space, in this existential unreality, the extent to which the world is imagined becomes evident.
Eternally Returning Departure
Home is a territory: a space, the sounds of that space and the producers of those sounds. Home is the periodic repetition of different sounds in the same space. The sound of the evening news orchestrating dinner to the rhythm of crisis, the bird’s morning song animating the smell of Arabic coffee, giving purpose to conversations traversed by the sound of the dog galloping after the cats in the garden, and the body shaking tunes of nights we will never remember. Home is the order among the chaos of the day. A space defined by the circular motion of leaving and returning. A circular motion of space and time. A periodic repetition of the same sounds in different times. The same space, the same social relations, the same associations. A rhythmic repetition of the past in the present.
I learned to resolve crisis in words and images. To build an image of myself that would fit the normative world around me. To stay the same but hope that the future will be different. I have learned the language of New Lebanon, the language of empty hope and speculation. The language that rids itself from the responsibility of the future by ignoring the present and relapsing to the past. I express myself in the safety of a foreign language better than I do in my own. But in my own, I can lie better than any language. I can build conditional worlds free of crisis. I can lie and persuade myself to keep working, to keep trying to get the past to the future.
Normativity is the anchor keeping me from escaping a non-existing home and deviating from the orbit of comforting familiarity. Normativity and fear become allies, reinforcing each other; the more I am afraid, the more I cling to normativity; The more normal I become, the more fragile my reality. The more violent normativity becomes towards me, towards my body, the more I retreat into the safety of the mind.
The body is in crisis, it cannot be trusted. The body does not like normativity nor it’s normative home. "The body needs to be governed and disciplined if we want to go back to the glory of the past." The body is bisected to form a mind; a mind haunted by a financial unconscious and defended by the apparatus of the state and the mechanisms of the trauma of war. The real, the language of the body, is translated into abstract financial representations, into money and capital. The real is translated to the language of governance, leaving the body lost in abstractions, holding on to whatever seems real.
Nationalism and fascism become the only way to assert an imaginary identity and feel a sense of belonging. In order not to relive the trauma of the war, I have submitted my body to the mind of governance, to the leaders, the saviours, the technocrats, the resolvers of crisis, and to the rhythm of Neo-liberal reconstruction.
The present is a colony of the past, and normativity is its mission. The child is disciplined by the mother, the mother by the father, the father by his family name, the family by religion, religion by the party, the party by the leader, and the leader by the holy trinity—God, money and foreign powers. The self disciplines itself through normative values, and static ideals tailored to the benefit of power—a leader that is never wrong, an all-knowing impotent god, a fantasy of a nation we can never attain, a perfectly rational illusion of the mind, or money.
Sometimes, I stay awake at night contemplating my embarrassment of a childish pride I had in something so deceitfully imagined as a nation. A pride I felt as a child watching advertisements of the ministry of tourism in between the soulless dramas of Lebanese TV stations. I see people in parties, aerial shots of the sea and the mountains. People skying and swimming (most probably in the same day).
Why was the show I was watching interrupted by an ad trying to sell me a nation? Why is the performance I was watching set in the negative space of a performance I’m participating in?
What I was failing to see was that these ads were not showing Lebanon as a desirable destination for tourists, but they were producing a Lebanon desirable for me, for us, the people in Lebanon. A fundamental scene in the Neo-Liberal performance of the state of Lebanon, written and directed by the people in power, set in a magical piece of the sky on earth.
Since the beginning, the nation of Lebanon is a network of family businesses. A state where the elite of every sect carved up its functions between each other. Divided the private businesses, the banks and the essential trades, and fought each other in the religious political system. Governance, like everything in the Lebanese neoliberal reality, serves multiple contradictory functions depending on the frame of reference from which it is defined. From one side, governance is a never-ending American style fighting match, where the imaginary fragments of the Lebanese identity are personified in leaders that embody the ideals of each fragment and fight the other leaders and their ideals. No matter how real the fight becomes it’s always a semiotic conflict, where the masters of capital enact the signs of conflict that is yet to emerge in society. From the other side, governance is a tool to maintain the flow of capital to the bourgeoisie. The imagined identity of Lebanon produced by the governance of Lebanon, in a Neo-Liberal twist of reality becomes the reality of its consumer. The real becomes an amalgamation of mythologies echoing the fragmentation of society, having only the illusion of governance in common. The myth of a thriving, developing state, the polished, edited and filtered image of a post-colonial nation in decay becomes the reality of its citizens. Success, happiness, and greed become the themes of a performance extravagant enough to fulfil the orientalist promise of a luxurious touristic experience, producing a nation with a capital suitable for western tourists, a banking system ambiguous enough for the flow of oil money, and promises of development, success and fortune to keep the marginalised people inside it hopeful.
Everything And Nothing
When you leave Lebanon and come back you learn to recognise the people whose children have left. They exist on the periphery of existence, in between living and dying. They stop living and stop dying until they see one of their kids again. They radiate the painful happiness of imagining their loved ones happy elsewhere. They radiate the reflection of the pixels their loved ones are made of; reflecting the screens of their phones where they live together with their children. They are the people that participate in life with nihilistic disgust, knowing all too well that they have been cheated. You can see their bodies, abandoned, and left to be crushed by the weight of their existence, and the existence of those they brought from the peacefulness of nothing to the machine of senseless production.
When I left Lebanon, I was confronted with its history. Along with the expansion of the limits of my physical world, the most radical transformation to my reality was the burst of the temporal bubble I was confined to. In Lebanon, time starts in 1990 after the end of the civil war. History is a subject we learn about in school, but it does not concern us because between us and then, there is a war. A time between 1975 and 1990, we know existed, even the people that were alive then are still alive now; some of them. But we all live in a reality where the war happened in a time that we are dissociated from. We are fun-loving happy people, living in the present, especially the ones that survived. If we remember, we remember with longing the golden days of Lebanon. Lebanon the Switzerland of the East, before Beirut lost the spirit of its colonisers and the banks still smelled like fuel. Before the tourists were replaced with the press of war, broadcasting the ruins of their holidays back to them.
The state of Lebanon as a polity has always depended on tensions between religious groups. As a consequence, the Lebanese identity is fragmented into sub-identities in conflict. The Lebanese identity becomes empty because what it signifies is incomplete. Nevertheless, It remains as a reflection of the governance of Lebanon; as a representation of the group of people that choreograph, manage, and orders the conflicts of identity that correspond to the nation of Lebanon as a political unit in the global political system.
The French colonisation of Lebanon did not put an end to the religious fragmentation of the social and the politic; rather the modernisation of Lebanon was simply the breaking of relations with the Ottoman Empire and plugging Lebanon into the global capitalist market as a part in the French colonial machine. While the religious social structure is appropriated as the basis of the new social and political organisation. The establishment of the state of Lebanon was only the adaptation of religious governance to the new world order and the initiation of religious feudal leaders into the capitalist system as the national bourgeoisie. The leaders, propped up and doctored in the universities of their colonisers, adopted the liberal ideology with a religious appendix. The liberal ideology, along with a Neo-liberal system of governance to guarantee their power as subordinates to global power, and religious zeal to guarantee their power as protectors of their sects against the other sects. After the independence, the state of Lebanon became the playground of the elite and governance became an extension of their families and their businesses.
The Lebanese civil war was primarily an economic war that stared out of the frustration of marginalised people with the Neo-Liberal development of the state. A frustration that established lines of solidarity between disenfranchised and disempowered groups, from workers and displaced Palestinian people in the cities, to farmers in the mountains. People who fought for their rights, only to be massed, and replaced with a political representation, that looks the same as they do, acts the same, fights the same, but with a leader, and with political ambitions. What is commonly remembered as the war today, is the appropriated momentum of people in revolt, plugged into a machine of governance that produces and orders conflicting identities, and assigns to each a history, a leader, a territory, and a religion. In a Neo-Liberal environment where the source of wealth shifts from the work of labourers to foreign aid for both destruction and reconstruction.
Desire, when faced with lack, becomes a means for survival; a desire for survival and a desire for competition. I have seen my parents work their whole life as if work will resolve their crisis. I have been taught in school to work in spite of crisis, to work hard, harder than my friends because in crisis only the best have the privilege to work. Only the best will have the privilege of being exploited, while the others slowly fade out of existence.
Crisis is a threat to be resolved; a productive threat, a lucrative problem. Crisis inspires the rich to ensure their continuous flow of capital despite it. To continue to make money even when labour is nearly impossible. The war thought the Lebanese bourgeoisie to stop trying to save their failing state, and to use their failure as a source of income. A failed state in a constant state of development, in a constant state of need. Capital is constantly flowing as help, as loans. The worse the state of Lebanon, the worse the state of marginalised citizens is, the more help it gets. Suffering becomes a necessary financial asset, the political system the battleground of bidders, and the politicians the gatekeepers of capital. Even militia leaders by the end of the war realised that politics is a more lucratively sustainable business model than military control. One with better luxuries and better smelling friends. A business model they agreed to adopt, all together, along with the matured bourgeoisie to put an end to the war.
The war ended, in the past; but the past and the linear time it belongs to is a device of power. Power treasures the present, for the present, is when power is powerful. Power treasures the past because the past was not much different from the present, we just remember it differently. Power also treasures the future because the future won’t be much different from the present since they both have the same past.
The war ended but the performance continues. Instead of life going back to normal, war became normal. A war between the Lebanese body and its financial unconscious. A clean, well-dressed war that smells nice and looks nice. A civilised war that I fight against my friends because we’re all looking for the same job. A war that started before the war, and continues to this moment.
It became clear after the fighting stopped that the lack that ignited the war was not meant to be eliminated after it. The fragmentary identities, along with their imagined histories were normalised: every sect settles in their territory, produce their own struggles and the leaders that manage those struggles. They all meet around the difunctional apparatus of the state in Beirut. The lines of conflict around the city dissolve, to be replaced by lines of segregation according to class. The elite of all sects intermingles in the centre, while the lower classes are confined to fragments of the city relative to their religious-political affiliation—a spatial reconstruction of colonial structures that mirror the internalised coloniality of the Lebanese body.
Neo-Liberal capitalism in Lebanon has been pushed to its limits, rid of all performances of equity and equality and simplified to its essence. The individual carries the responsibility of the failing economy; a truly liberal individual that only liberates governance from its responsibility, while socially and religiously shackled to traditional models of leadership maintained by normative values. The social is fragmented into conflicting realities, where people in crisis fight each other for survival with limited means, while the technocrats, the bourgeoisie, and the sectarian leaders use the struggle of workers and the blood of religious fanatics as lubricants for capital, to fulfil their role as inter-state global beggars in the neoliberal machine of senseless production.
Nothing And Everything
At around six in the afternoon, the world seemed pinkish orange; the sun was setting. I was around 12 years old, in the car with my father going down from our village to the coast. A fifteen minutes trip that separated me from life—home from school, work, friends and back home—a trip I took countless times before that day and after it. I remember my father, with the weariness of the already tempted, explain to me the dangers of debt. Explain to me that I should never be in debt to anyone. Explain to me that whoever has debt on me, has power over me. That debt relieves my economic lack but creeps into every conscious moment as a reminder of credit.
Debt is the mode of relation that the stuff of Lebanon are floating in, relating to each other. Debt is the veins of the body of Lebanon through which power and capital flows. Debt is the centre of national politics: an infinite regression of debt that spirals in and around the political discourse, phasing in between the consolidated identities of political figures: business owners, bank owners and national leaders. Debt the achievement of my leader–debt the sin of the other leaders. Economic, religious, emotional debt as the reference for social relations. Debt repeated obsessively as if to remind me that the fragile stability and narratives of new Lebanon is itself a debt.
Nietzsche argued in The Genealogy Of Morals that memory, namely the recording of debt, is one of the fundamental aspects that led to the emergence of society. Hierarchical social structures are built on the creation of debt, and the induction of credit in the promise for repayment through violence or fear. The people are in debt to their state, to their leaders; they exchange their sovereignty for stability, for survival and for protection; benefits that the individual has to pay for through labour and compliance.
In a post-colonial late-capitalist environment, debt is reproduced in between the fragments of society. Children are in debt to their parents, women are in debt to men, queer people are in debt to notions of normatively, workers to business owners and corporations, sects to their leaders, new nations to colonial powers… Instead of the static hierarchies of previous social arrangements, capitalism continuously creates and reinstate, imaginary differences which are then incorporated in a system of hierarchisation. In this way, there is no one line through which debt is enforced and credit is extracted (like the feudal/farmer line), but all the fragments of society get ordered in a vertical hierarchy where one group is in debt to another “different” group. Capitalism creates difference and orders the resulting fragments hierarchically through the debt of the less powerful to the more powerful. But here in our perception of difference, within our hierarchisation of difference through debt, lies the opportunity for actual change and perpetual resistance.
“We saw it in a step yesterday, some hips, a smile, the way a hand moved. We heard it in a break, a cut, a lilt, the way the words leapt. We felt it in the way someone saves the best stuff just to give it to you and then its gone, given, a debt. They don’t want nothing. You have got to accept it, you have got to accept that. You’re in debt but you can’t give credit because they won’t hold it.” (Harney & Moten, 2013)
Debt among people is not calculated in abstract quantities. Debt through alliance is not recorded in terms of money, nor repaid in the form of credit. Non-hierarchical debt in between people is felt; it is experienced as affect that increases the ability of our bodies to act; It is the positive affections that Spinoza describes in his ethics. It is the horizontal debt without credit, without a promise to repay. A debt that strengthens social bonds without subjugation.
Hope lies in establishing debt without credit, in breaking hierarchical structures of social organisation imposed through physical, financial, and psychological subjugation. An uprising—like in the case of the demonstrations of 1968, 1973, 2015 and 2019 in Lebanon—is a challenge to this systematic fragmentation of the struggles. An uprising is the collective realisation that what has been tolerated should not be tolerated, which in turn mobilises a voluntary collective movement. A collective movement of individual bodies, following the realisation that the benefit of the individual is the same as the benefit of the collective. An uprising is the abandonment of illusory differences and the reality that is built upon them, to produce a collective reality based on the collective desire for a decent life, rather than the individual’s desire for survival. An uprising is an energetic process, a dose of turbulence that increases the chaos of the system.
Chaos, turbulence and deterritorialisation are at the basis of capitalist expansion. An uprising highlights the sources of crisis, makes the problems clear, which capitalism interprets as an invitation for expansion through resolving the crisis with more production. This tendency of capitalism to find solutions that reinforce the same structures that created the problem in the first place, gives capitalism its immense capacity of appropriating revolutionary energy. In order to imagine a different world we need to understand the problem from a frame of reference that acknowledges the capacity of the established order to reabsorb revolutionary anger, and dilute it in a political system designed to conserve and reproduce the same normative world in which the exploitative order is maintained. National politics becomes different when the historical, geographical, and ideological enclosures of the nation expand to allow the acknowledgement the intersection of racial, gendered, and economic systems in the struggles of everyday life.
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- Nasr, Salim. 1978. Backdrop to Civil War: The Crisis of Lebanese Capitalism. Middle East Research and Information Project, Inc. (MERIP), No. 73, pp: 3-13.
- Harney Stefano & Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.