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Beirut Bombed: A STATUS Quick Thoughts Conversation with Maya Mikdashi

In this not-so-quick Quick Thoughts interview for Status/الوضع, Maya Mikdashi examines how the representation of the attacks on Beirut became dominated by connotations surrounding the term dahieh. She reviews the Western media's characterization of the neighborhood as a Hezbollah stronghold and problematizes it against the backdrop of spatial sectarian fault-lines in Beirut. She also critiques the way in which the Paris attacks either quickly overshadowed Beirut or were replaced by a state-sponsored solidarity that obfuscates colonial history. Maya unsettles the growing hierarchies of mourning and challenges the expanding scope of the discourses of the "War on Terror."


Maya Mikdashi received her PhD from Columbia University's Department of Anthropology. She is Co-Director of the documentary film About Baghdad. Maya is currently a Mellon Postdoctural Fellow at Rutgers University. She is Co-Founder/Editor of Jadaliyya.

Please find a transcript of the interview below the player.


Interview Transcript

Transcribed by Samantha Brotman 

​Adel Iskandar (AI): We have Maya Mikdashi, who is an assistant professor at Rutgers University, with us on this segment of Quick Thoughts on Status/al-Wad', where we will discuss the events or the attacks in Beirut in conjunction with the attacks in Paris or elsewhere around the region, and try to situate those and problematize them. Maya, welcome to Status.

Maya Mikdashi (MM): Thank you Adel. Excited to have this conversation.

AI: As are we. So, let us backtrack a little bit and talk about the attacks themselves. We have a dual suicide attack in Beirut in a specific neighborhood district, and of course it makes news instantaneously. But there is a fair amount of context that needs to be given to where the attacks were situated and how this was covered. Can you help us unpack this?

MM: Sure. Well, the attacks happened on 12 November [2015], and they have been claimed by ISIS [the acronym commonly used to refer to the Islamic State, previously self-named the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]. The target was a working-class shopping district in Beirut, in a neighborhood that borders a Palestinian refugee camp. There is about a twelve-mile drive from the downtown district of Beirut, which is also the seat of Parliament and [where] there is another very wealthy shopping district. The attacks specifically targeted a very busy street that is the place of a very popular bakery, stores, food vendors, shoe stores, and home goods supplies. It is a poor and working class neighborhood. It is a suq [market] basically, and it is always very busy with a very diverse cross-section of Lebanon's population. This means people from the neighborhood and outside the neighborhood come to shop there. Every night, the streets are actually really busy with Lebanese from all sects and age groups in addition to Palestinian, Kurdish, and Iraqi refugees, and migrant laborers from Sri Lanka, India, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and other places either from South Asia or African countries.

The thing that is interesting about this is that, after the attacks, Lebanese security sources revealed that the prime target, or the intended target, the first-choice target, of ISIS was within the hospital of Rasul al-A‘zam in Dahieh, which is a hospital that is said to be the place where a lot of Hizballah fighters who fight in Syria come for treatment. So, that was the original target. Then, the ISIS fighters were locked out of that target or they were dissuaded because of security in the hospital, so they went to the street and they detonated themselves in the suq [market].

There are a couple of things that are interesting here in terms of the ways that people have been writing, talking, or debating the question of the attacks in Lebanon, in terms of where they occurred. Around the time of the attacks there was a trend in mainstream media to really discuss the area where the attacks took place just as a Hizballah stronghold, or a Shi‘a bastion. At the time, the BBC's headline, or one of the BBC titles was, "Beirut Attack: Suicide Bombers Kill Dozens in Hizballah Stronghold." The New York Times began an article saying, "Two suicide bombers carried out a coordinated attack in a crowded area of southern Beirut controlled by the Hizballah militia." For those who look to Al Jazeera for a different way of looking at things, it actually did not provide that different lens, because this is the first line of one of their articles on the issue: "At least 41 people were killed in blast claimed by ISIL that struck Hizballah stronghold in the Lebanese capital." And since that time, there has been a lot of debate, a lot of very effective push-back, in the mainstream media about what it means to discuss Dahieh—and when I say Dahieh, all it means is suburb in Arabic—but in the Lebanon context this word has come to mean all of the southern belt of Beirut, a bunch of different neighborhoods that are part of the larger municipal or metro Beirut. The discursive production of the word itself, Dahieh, which just means suburb, now only means those areas. So, in Lebanon, if you want to discuss a northern suburb of Beirut, you would have to make it very explicit because the word itself has come to mean those specific areas, which are very large. There are many of them, they are very diverse. They are very densely populated, and the majority of residence there in Dahieh are displaced peoples or generations of displaced people, or they are migrants from different parts of Lebanon. Either they are economic migrants from undeveloped villages in Lebanon, or they are generations of displaced refugees from southern Lebanon and the Israeli occupation that ended in 2000. This is the largest population that is there, and yes they are majority of the Shi‘a sect. Then there are many, many other reasons that people live in Dahieh. One of the most important being somewhat affordable rates of rent in Dahieh, which brings a lot of people to those neighborhoods. I think in part, the push-back against these dominant frames was really great. People have really started speaking about the neighborhood very differently and about the attacks very differently. But one of the things that I find important to think about is the way that actually the discursive labor of what is called the Hizballah stronghold of southern Beirut is not only produced in this moment. It actually came to prominence and international circulation during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. At that time, the Israelis targeted Dahieh very specifically for 33 days with airstrikes and with massive bombing campaigns that really leveled entire apartment blocks, schools, health clinics, and media outlets. When Israel was accused of targeting civilians, they reproduced the War on Terror line, which is that they were targeting, if anything, the civilian architecture of terrorism. That infrastructure in economic, it is media, it is human. It is a support architecture of terrorism. In that way they were able to package their bombing campaign of the most densely populated civilian areas of Lebanon into the War on Terror discourse, and it worked. And it would only have worked if this discourse was also being produced in relation to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots of the War on Terror. But it is also really important to remember that the discourse of Dahieh as different, as separable from the rest of Beirut is something that actually has been internalized and produced in Lebanon itself. This is in part because the War on Terror discourse, the Israeli discourse, the making everyone available for killing, is something that plays in part with Lebanese politics and Lebanese sectarian paranoia around Hizballah and Shi‘a residents of Lebanons, that already puts them under a question mark or a sign of interrogation: Are you Lebanese first? Are you Shi‘a first? What is your allegiance? Is it to Hizballah or to the state? And the way that this kind of discourse can circulate widely and resonate is because it can link into local fears, paranoias, and discourses on Dahieh.

AI: Explain the local tropes and how they manifest. Is there also a parallel discourse of Dahieh's resistance that is not necessarily sectarianized, that grew out of the 2006 war as the result of collective victimization?

MM: Yeah. These things are in conflict with each other, right? But they both exist. They exist at the same time and they are continuously in conflict with each other. I am not trying to suggest that the only frame that Dahieh is understood in is sect, because I think class is also really important to the story. Part of the focus on the Hizballah neighborhood, or the Shi‘a neighborhood, precisely erases the class element. That is a technique of sectarianism, which is to erase class as an analytic in order to, in some ways, protect elite cross-sectarian interest. So I think, actually, that is a much larger unspoken discourse that cannot be separated from the question of sect and sectarianism.

The other part is that yes, there is a counter-discourse that poses Dahieh as a site of resistance. That is not so different than the posing of Beirut as a whole as a site of resistance given its history during the civil war. I think it is very also important to remember that these are struggles, that there are discursive struggles. But also that, since 2006, a lot has happened in Lebanon. The latest bombings being only the latest iteration. So, for example, in 2008 or 2009—I cannot remember because so many things have happened—the Future Movement put up these huge posters around "Beirut proper," that said, "Bayrut khat ahmar," Beirut is a red line. And you would think that the passing person who walked by would think, "Maybe this is a question of solidarity, or it is a way of thinking about Beirut as a site of resistance." But it was actually directed towards Hizballah and the 2008-2009 governmental crisis, which is that, "You will not Beirut. Bayrut khat ahmar," which is interesting because Dahieh is in Beirut. So there is a very clear discursive separation and amputation that then gets laid over with technical, infrastructural, and municipal segregation, which is what has happened with a lot of the security apparatus in Beirut and in Dahieh.

AI: This is very interesting. Then the bombing happens. How does the press or the media in Lebanon articulate or discuss that? Does it fit into the discourse that you just described about the red lines? Or is there an understanding that the attack of a single neighborhood is an attack on Beirut, is an attack on Lebanon? Or does it fall into the same tropes that we see elsewhere?

MM: I think it is actually both. The wonderful thing about what we are seeing is a huge debate unfolding. Let us not forget that Lebanon has been going through an activist and protest movement for the past months. So there are quite a few alternative media sources that have gotten some prominence and that are in debate with a lot of the mainstream media. But I think that it is important to remember what the separation of Dahieh does, what the discursive labor of it does. That discursive labor is unspoken in large part, but it is included with every iteration of the Hizballah stronghold regime. Part of this is that it is a fact, Hizballah is fighting in Syria. It is a very controversial issue in Lebanon because you have a lot of Lebanese who are anti-the Assad regime, and who are fighting on the other side. So, there is also another element that we have to pay attention to, which is an intra-Lebanese rivalry over Syria, or a mapping of the Syrian war onto Lebanon in some ways. Although, it is always stigmatized as the Hizballah presence. So, it is true, for example, the majority of south Beirut's residents are Shi‘a, but the majority of east Beirut's residents are Christian. It is true that Hizballah is the most dominant political force in that part of Beirut, but the Future Movement dominates other parts of Beirut that happen to be Sunni majority neighborhoods. But there is a particularization of Dahieh that happens. This is why I think that class the histories of this place cannot be disaggregated from this. And also the history of the place of the Shi‘a sect in the history of political sectarianism and the paranoia. And the anxieties of this moment, in terms of sectarian demographics and sectarian divisions of power cannot be disaggregated from that longer history.

The point is there is a sectarian geography that divides the entire country. Beirut is no exception, and Dahieh is no exception. It is not weird in this respect. In fact, the sectarian borders of Beirut have hardened in the post-Civil War era. I think it is, again, really important here to think about the war on terror and the way that the Sunni-Shi‘i geography has intensified, not just in Lebanon, but also in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, all these War on Terror hot spots. In Beirut, which is the area I can speak to most just because I work in Lebanon, the sectarian geography competes very strongly with class geography. These two patterns, class and sect, they challenge each other. This is because class polarization is just as if not much more extreme than sectarian polarization. The class geography is only exacerbated in the current moment when you have over two million refugees and 300,000 migrant laborers who currently live in Lebanon. The vast majority of them live under conditions of poverty. So there is no way to have a completely sectarian geography. One of the reasons why Dahieh is much more diverse than we hear about is because of poverty and the fact that rents are cheaper. But even the fact that rents are cheaper cannot be disaggregated from the fact that these are considered more dangerous areas. They are considered less formal settlements, and some parts of Dahieh are in poverty. So, the class, the sect, and the question of danger are very much intertwined. We do not really hear about it as much, especially this link between lower rent and availability for violence. Really, I think we should focus on the way that a lot of discursive labor is enacted with the frame that says Hizballah stronghold, and I am not sure that a quick anti- or different frame that is simply a critique, that does not go into ways that what it actually does is say this is a Hizballah stronghold, that it is not only sectarian, that it is not only about lobbing off Shi‘a citizens from the rest of Lebanon, that it does have a genealogy that intersects with a much longer history of the erosion of civilian versus combatant status in the War on Terror, but also before that, with histories of displacement in Lebanon; with the overlapping of Israeli tactics. And at the time of 2006, also the fact that the Israeli government was in contact with members of the Lebanese government, telling them, "Do not worry, we are only going after Hizballah." And that is understood as also Hizballah's "people," which are Shi‘a citizens who are considered automatons who are blindly following Hizballah.

So the War on Terror is there, the 2006 war is there, the anti-Shi‘a incitement across the region is definitely active in that frame. And here we can think about the labor of ISIS and Saudi Arabia and all of these other forms of incitement that exist across the Middle East today. There is also the labor of Lebanese sectarianism that has always sought to depoliticize class and economic violence in order to protect and make invisible cross-sectarian elite interests. And finally, there is another thing that we have not talked about yet, which is the ways that there is an erasing of refugees and migrant laborers as an intrinsic part of Lebanon politically, and as populations that are actively politically involved, and that have particular politics. These sort of populations are erased, their politics are erased again, through the frame of flattening an area into a Hizballah neighborhood. Especially given the fact that this particular neighborhood borders a Palestinian refugee camp of the same name, which was immediately in Lebanese mainstream press, or right-wing press—which is the majority of mainstream press—immediately posed as the potential site for the bombers, "the bombers came from here." This has a very long history in Lebanon, where you really treat the refugee camps as the site of criminality, of terrorism. All the military problems come out of the refugee camps into "Lebanon," or the larger part of Lebanon. Okay, so now we can continue.

AI: Okay, I am going to transition in a not-so-seamless way. At a moment where there is this discursive labor happening, active discussions about genealogy, nomenclature, framing, tropes, historicizing, all of this stuff is happening literally at a time when all eyes are on Dahieh, and what this area means or is meant to mean in both the Lebanese psyche and in terms of international coverage. And then within 24 hours you have another bombing in a different site, a different locale, in Paris. These attacks all of the sudden either reframe or paraphrase or shift the discussion in some was. Can you tell us a little bit about how those two ended up being both juxtaposed temporally and spatially and what that translated into? 

MM: Sure. There has been so much good work on this issue that has actually made it through into mainstream press coverage, which really critiques the ways the world mourns Paris. The ISIS bombings and the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris are considered world events, whereas the Beirut attacks are described as lamentable, one in a string of many attacks, or a place where this always happens. And there has been some great work that has really made the rounds on this and in mainstream media, which has been really wonderful. So basically, to give you a very brief sketch, after the Paris bombings, when the mainstream international media really took this on, and also political figures like President Obama and other international political figures, really took this on as an attack against the western civilization, or an attack against "all of humanity." Whereas the attacks on Beirut do not rise to that level. There is somewhat successful critique of this that insists that actually these are all targets of ISIS and that we should be able to mourn all of the victims together. I think this is a very important critique. What I find important to add to it is the fact, A) that there is a longer history to this, again, and I would precisely pull the 2006 war because of the spectacularity of making Dahieh a viable target—the civilian architecture of terrorism, again—which is not present in a lot of these accounts. And I also think it is important to think about the ways that there is an exceptionalization—and this is, again, a very long, complicated story—of Lebanon within the Middle East as a place that is more western, that is closer to Europe culturally, socially, economically even. This has a particular history, too. So the inclusion of Beirut into the frame, there are several things we can talk about. First of all, it happens post-Paris. So Beirut's inclusion is through the frame of Paris, which does its own kind of labor. Then it is important to think about, what are the places that are not included? People have been talking a lot about attacks in Kenya, Boko Haram. But also Baghdad, Iraq, Syria have borne the brunt of ISIS violence for over a year now. These are places that nobody really talks about. What has happened to the civilian populations there in terms of violence by ISIS? These communities are not mourned, they are not incorporated into a larger understanding of what it means to be within a civil war. It is not spoken of in terms of displacement and refugees. I just had a conversation with a friend where they were saying, "How did this happen to Syria? How did it disappear?" And we know that Syria did not disappear. There was a policy, a strategy in place. There has been a war for over five years now, which is crazy to think about, right?

AI: Absolutely.

MM: It is not miraculous. It is not surprising. It is not this strange phenomenon. It is just really that people—and I am including here press, but also states, and transnational citizens—have not cared enough to know or to put pressure or to find any solution because there is no solution that makes everyone or all the major powers happy. So therefore Syria was allowed to fester and continue, and now we get to this point where it is like, "How did this happen? Oh my God!" In one day people realize that Syria "disappeared" because of the bombings in Paris. I find this very key to thinking about the question of Paris/Beirut, because what is not talked about is precisely Syria and Iraq. In part because it is so difficult to talk about it, but also in part because it makes us all, as observers, as thinkers, and as citizens of other states, deeply complicit in Syria precisely through our negligence. I just want to underscore that the other thing to think about is the fact that—today I was reading the Lebanese news and they were saying that today they projected the Lebanese flag and the French flag on Sakhrat al-Rawshe [also known as the Pigeon’s Rock] as an act of solidarity. They had representatives from the French government and the Lebanese government there. It is a way of producing cosmopolitan brotherhood, I guess. Or a sort of symmetry, which is not accidental, again. It is also laden with a certain historical record of a colonialism. We should never forget that France was the colonizer of both Lebanon and Syria. If not for French colonization would probably not exist within their borders today, but also would definitely, in terms of Lebanon, would not exist with the Political system that it has today. I think it is interesting that nobody talks about that with the French bombing of Raqaa. In fact, this is not the first time, or the second time, or the third time, that French military planes have bombed Syria. The largest bombing campaign was during an anti-colonial struggle in Syria in the 1920—an anti-French, anti-colonial struggle. All of those things get dropped and in turn get replaced by this symmetry between Lebanon and France, or a demand for recognition along the question of mourning. This really does not shake the fact that—and this is something Judith Butler has written about really beautifully—the entire [Inaudible (00:30:00)] of mourning within the war on terror is built on civilization and racial hierarchy. So being included into an act of mourning is also an act of exclusion for others, which could produce them or make them legible and legitimate as targets. Here I would be concerned about Syria, Iraq, and the refugees because today, just as you are reading the news about the French and the Lebanese flags on Sakhrat al-Rawshe, there is also news of France and Lebanon really tightening their policies on refugees. Today the Lebanese army went into yet another refugee camp in east Lebanon and arrested people. So you cannot disentangle them. In fact, the production of a Beiruti-Parisian politics of mourning is just as exclusionary as it is inclusionary, I would say.

The other thing to think about is the ways that, for the people—and I am thinking mostly here about the performative politics of Facebook or Twitter or social media—the way that people have been including Beirut into the frame as—I am not sure how much of it is a deep understanding of the reasons why we should be thinking about Beirut alongside the Paris bombings, or we should be thinking about the Baghdad bombings, or we should be thinking about the past year in Syria, and instead the way it might be operating as a form of actual self-fashioning. Beth Povinelli has written about this too, in terms of liberal politics and the way that it makes people apologize for their wrong political choices as a way to make you more perfectly liberal. That it is purely performative. So, the fact that you include Paris and Beirut and maybe Baghdad, and maybe, maybe, maybe Syria in these social media platforms is actually a way of producing yourself in this world more than it is a deep understanding of the reasons why we should be thinking these things. 

AI: It also, as you said, a lot of it is performative. A lot of it is an act of deflection.

MM: Right. 

AI: It is kind of an evolutionary process. A view that you may be assessed or evaluated on the grounds of your commitment to liberal, progressive, human rights, universalism. If you fall short—so now people are like, "Okay, so hata Boko Haram mish 'arafeh [even Boko Haram, I don't know]—they just keep opening that bracket. 

MM: Zidu, zidu [and more, more]. This has basically been the progressive answer, rather than really problematizing the frame itself, and questioning the history of this frame and the way it maps onto much longer histories and genealogies of racial, carceral, colonial, and imperial violence. And I think that the question here is really the one of the implication. 

AI: And I am really glad that you mentioned this issue of the hierarchy and the extent to which a tragedy is elevated to a point where it becomes worthy of attention based on its proximity, or a civilizational relationship between it and tragedies in other notable metropolises of the western world. So, it is as if Paris bestows on Beirut the honor of being recognized, you know? And Beirut can do so with Nigeria.

MM: But it is also the fact that what drops out of this—the fact that Raqaa is being bombed by France. What is the labor that the region has to do to restore a French sense of national security? I think this is going to be an interesting question as we move on. So, okay, France is bombing Raqaa, which is a city occupied by ISIS. Again, here you see the discursive frame of "this is the capital city of ISIS" as if people are voting in ISIS, as if it is this ideologically permeated space. So what is the labor that the region has to do now in terms of restoring a sense of national security to the west? A lot of that labor is going to be an increasing amount of violence, which, let us be honest, aerial bombing does not discriminate. It is one of the most egalitarian forms of bombing and of war-time violence. What is the labor we are expected to do? What are the things we are not expected to do? Are we allowed to mourn Raqaa? Are we allowed to mourn the people in Raqaa who are being bombed today? If we mourn them publicly, where does this position us on the civilizational scale? Nobody talks about Russia. Even when the Russian state has said, "the airline carrier had been bombed by ISIS," but even that is not a world event. So, I mean, it is kind of like an octopus. It is not even an octopus, it is viral. You do not know how it is going to come out but we can only analyze it in its amplifications. The way that the discourse moves, settles into a place, becomes flexible, incorporates this at the exclusion of that, and how the echoes start to make sense.

AI: Mazbut [exactly]. And then, another issue too is doing the work of anti-imperial, anti-colonial critique. When you have got Raqaa essentially being occupied by ISIS, and then now you have the French, former colonial/current imperial power, stepping in as the supposed liberator of that particular territory. The frames are not only in overlap, they are literally one atop the other. There is a lexical problem, where we are sort of at a loss for language to describe what is unfolding.

MM: We are. But I just want to stress that this did not come from nowhere. Again, there is a long history, there is a long genealogy, and frankly there is a lot of interest in knowing this history and this genealogy. I would rather say, it is not that there is a loss for words but maybe there is a loss of engagement.

AI: There is.

MM: Because I think there are words. And we need to listen to what people are actually freaking saying. And I do not mean here what the pundits, what the journalists are saying, or what we are saying in this interview. I mean, think about the question of Syria and the displaced and the refugees. It is unfathomable for someone who grew up in and lived in Lebanon and is Lebanese, it is an unfathomable thing to think of Syria today. If we want to really understand or think about or work in ways that are politically capacious, and radical, we need to center the voices of refugees, I think, within this conversation.

AI: Absolutely. And they are typically the ones either forgotten in this conversation or they are themselves rendered securitized subjects.

MM: Yeah. And this is true of Lebanon, France, the United States, everywhere. They are now just seen as a threat, as potential terrorists. And I find it deeply worrying that this discourse of the war on terror is now just being reproduced everywhere unproblematically, which is precisely discourse of the hidden danger within the Arab/Muslim body, the potential for danger, the potential for violence. These are words we heard back in 2003, and they are proliferating. I think that is what [Inaudible (00:39:06)] there is actually more of this talk.

AI: And more that you would suspect would never use this kind of language have since adopted it as part of their repertoire. 

Maya Mikdashi, thank you so much for an absolutely riveting, enlivening, enriching conversation about a real multi-sited tragedy, both in the human sense but also in the discursive sense as well. I know that these conversations will continue to happen and we will have you back on Status/al-Wad‘ very, very soon.

MM: Inshallah ba‘dayn byikun ‘anjad quick thoughts [Hopefully then it will really be quick thoughts] [laughs].

AI: Yeah [laughs]. Unfortunately it is very difficult to talk about any of this stuff without explicating it. So, I thank you for this and am looking forward to talking to you again.


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