Andrew Arsan, Lebanon: A Country in Fragments (London: Hurst & Company, 2018)
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Andrew Arsan (AA): I returned to Lebanon in 2005, after an absence of almost fifteen years. I remember from this visit a sense of growing discord and a fear of the political class’s capacity to capture moments and movements of freedom, turning them to their own ends, but also a feeling of optimism, of relief, of opening as friends and relatives across the political spectrum looked to the future with renewed expectations. It is clear now, even at this relatively short remove, that this was not a moment of new beginnings, but one of closure, of exclusion and rupture, which brought low the political order that had prevailed since the end of the civil war in 1990, but which gave rise only to a new polarized, paralyzed dispensation, in which the contest for power and prominence between the two blocs of March 14 and March 8, and their irresolvable differences on key issues, had a deadening effect on political life.
This sense of futures foreclosed, drift and stasis only gained in amplitude over subsequent years, with all the assassinations and resignations, ultimatums, vacuums, term extensions, threats and counter-threats, tussles, insults, bargains, and volte-faces that are the unedifying stuff of Lebanese political life, and with the wearying, anxiety-making stresses of the everyday—the power cuts and traffic jams, the low wages and high rents and shop windows full of unaffordable stuff, the stench of trash and the sense of graft, of unfairness and inequality, of paths to social mobility blocked off by nepotism. Increasingly, Lebanon came to feel like a country standing still, caught in a continuous present, haunted by violence and harried by external pressures.
The story of these years, then, is a sad one, but it was one that I felt viscerally needed telling, so that the travails of those who have lived through these times, and the strategies they have devised to evade their constraints, are accounted for. For all the onrush of wonderful scholarship on Lebanon in recent years, general works on the country still tend to focus on the flickering loyalties and fluid alignments of Lebanon’s political class, the geopolitical stakes of its porous sovereignty, and the workings of confessionalism—taking the latter, in particular, as the master key that will unlock understanding of Lebanon.
Such an approach, however, is insufficient. It leaves too much out to make sense of contemporary life in Lebanon, and considers it an exceptional place, to be treated in isolation. Far from an island of exceptionality, though, Lebanon is a place that can tell us a great deal about the early twenty-first century world—a world of financial globalization and growing nativism, of neoliberal privatization, of frantic consumption and narcissism, depressed cultivation of the self, of disaffection and anxiety, of displacement and refuge, precarity and inequality.
In short, I wrote this book because I am persuaded that what has happened in Lebanon since 2005, and the particular shape that life has taken there, matters—not just to those who are interested in Lebanon or the Middle East, but to all those who care about the world in which we live today and worry about what is to be done.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AA: Lebanon: A Country in Fragments is an attempt to provide an overview of the contemporary Lebanese experience in its totality. It begins with a narrative of the political events of the years after 2005, intended to provide those with relatively little knowledge of Lebanon’s recent history with a guide.
The book then moves on to consider other aspects of contemporary life in Lebanon, from political leadership and partisanship, to a political economy that privileges private, particular interests over the common good, creating a glut of high-end real estate development while allowing for systemic infrastructural failure, and from the routines and expectations of leisure and pleasure to the precarious, demanding lives of Lebanon’s migrant workers and refugees. The book closes with an account of the trash crisis that began in the summer of 2015 and the political mobilization that it prompted, with its brave, beautiful, thwarted vision of a new commonweal.
Throughout, I lay the emphasis on the politics of the everyday, showing the ways in which wearying quotidian realities, preoccupations, desires and needs shape the social, political, and cultural worlds of Lebanon’s inhabitants, and how these daily stresses and strains are shaped in turn by broader, structural features of the country’s political economy. Though the latter are formidable forces to reckon with, I argue that human agency is always a part of the story—that ordinary people find ways of navigating the constraints in their way, strategies that allow them as best they can to endure and perhaps even to find some fleeting pleasure, but also that even seemingly impersonal forces are the product of willful actors, of ministers and central bankers, property developers, and entrepreneurs whose moves have created a particular structure of life.
This book is also an attempt to bring together and offer tribute to a rich outpouring of recent work by cultural anthropologists, critical geographers, architects, urban planners, sociologists, political scientists, and scholars of law, gender, and political economy. This is a book that would quite literally have been impossible to conceive and write without the insights I have gleaned from the writings of scholars like Mona Fawaz, Lara Deeb, Mona Harb, Abir Saksouk-Sasso, Nadine Bekdache, Maya Mikdashi, Laleh Khalili, Sylvain Perdigon, Liz Saleh, Ziad Abu-Rish and a host of others who have informed my understanding of contemporary Lebanon. It is important to recognize here their transformative achievements.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AA: At one level, this book marks a departure—both chronological and methodological—from my earlier work, which focused on the social, cultural, and intellectual histories of the early twentieth-century Eastern Mediterranean and its diasporas. My first book, Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa, reconstructed the moving lives of Eastern Mediterranean migrants, examining the ways in which displacement compelled them to devise new ways of living, of dwelling between places and making do with what came to hand. In a series of articles, I began to explore the intellectual history of the Arabic-speaking Eastern Mediterranean from the 1880s to the 1950s, or thereabouts. The themes of these pieces ranged from the uses of the ancient past and the recasting of Islamic historiography to the discursive norms that underpinned associational life and political praxis, and the Middle Eastern genealogy of human rights talk – all topics that seem a world away from twenty-first-century Lebanon.
At another level, though, I think there are deeper connections running through my work over the last decade: a desire to unpick the strategies that ordinary people rely on to find a course through life and the vernacular political languages to which they cling, to make sense of the interpenetration of discourse and practice, of language and life, and to break Lebanon out of its cell of exceptionalism, to bring the insights of other bodies of scholarship to bear on this place and, at the same time, to use it as a place to think from, an analytical prism through which to look on the late modern world.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AA: Like all authors, I hope this book will reach as wide a readership as possible. With that said I really have two, slightly paradoxical, ambitions for it: the first is that it will be read by people who may not know a great deal about contemporary Lebanon, but who want to learn more, moving beyond the shallow tropes of confessionalism, cosmopolitanism, and conflict; the second is that it will be read in Lebanon, and by the Lebanese, as part of a broader conversation on the country’s present and future and the prospects for moving beyond the current dispensation. In short, I did not write this purely for an academic. I hope, of course, that students and scholars will read it, profit from what it has to say, and engage critically with its arguments. However, I firmly believe that one does not have to be an academic to find something in this book, addressing as it does so many of the pressing issues that concern us all, in Lebanon and the world.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AA: I am currently working on three interrelated projects. The first is a history of the lands that became Lebanon, from the Ottoman conquest of Bilad al-Sham in 1516 to the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. The second is a new history of Beirut. In a sense, these will be the third and fourth installments in a quartet of books about Lebanon, after works on diaspora and contemporary life. The third of my current projects is a more ambitious and a longer-term undertaking: a new history of Arab political thought from the 1860s to the 1920s.
Excerpt from the Book:
What does it mean, and how does it feel, to attempt to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times? What are the joys and expectations, the fears and anxieties, the aspirations, hopes, disappointments, and sorrows that have marked the lives of the men and women who have lived through these unusual times? And how have they striven to maintain a hold over their own lives, in an effort to keep the years from drifting away on the currents of contingency? What strategies for everyday living and political action have they devised to fight the pull of events, to stay afloat and keep their heads above water? What are the discourses and rhetorical devices – from jokes to slogans, and sectarian polemics to political programmes – to which they have resorted to make sense of the unfamiliar, uncanny landscape of the present? It has often seemed over the last thirteen years as though the ordinary order of things had been suspended, giving way to the exceptional and the makeshift, the unexpected, the contingent and the provisional. Uncertainty and precarity have come to leave their indelible imprint on the lives of many, often taking as profound an emotional and psychic toll as they exact an economic cost. If Lebanon’s politicians have sometimes appeared to be indulging in what – to borrow a term from the political scientist Lisa Wedeen – could be called the politics of ‘as if’, then its inhabitants have simply been engaged in the politics of getting by. Every act, every choice is political in contemporary Lebanon. Whether it signals a tacit acceptance of prevailing social norms, an attempt to deflect the weight of structural forces, or an outright rejection of the status quo, it is also always a reminder of the sheer effort required just to muddle through and get on with the day-to-day in times of crisis. This book argues that, if we are to understand Lebanon in the twenty-first century, we cannot ignore the fraught politics of the everyday in times like these, times out of joint when all seems awry.
But why should any of this matter? To most outside the small circle of academic specialists and foreign policy analysts who work on Lebanon, the country seems of limited significance. It is not India, China or the United States, Russia, South Africa or Brazil, countries whose importance seems self-evident, a function as much of their immense territorial extent as of their demographic, economic and geopolitical heft. Lebanon, by contrast, is a small state. With a population roughly equivalent to that of New Zealand – at least before its ranks were swollen by the coming of Syrian refugees – it is just a little bigger than the Bahamas, and smaller even than other Middle Eastern states hardly reputed for their size, such as Kuwait and Qatar. But that is perhaps why Lebanon does matter. For it can seem at times a microcosm of the contemporary world, a petri dish in which we can observe the microbial strains of late modernity. This was certainly the response of my partner, Sophie, on her first visit to Lebanon in 2013. After a few days in the country, she turned to me as we were walking through the barren web of streets that is Beirut’s central business district, and said: ‘so this is what neoliberalism looks like’. The point, of course, is not that the effects of neoliberal logic might not be apparent in Britain or the United States – far from it – but that the workings of the contemporary world can perhaps best be glimpsed in miniature, and from elsewhere. As Jean and John Comaroff have noted, it might make sense to begin from the post-colonies of the Middle East, Africa or Asia if we are to understand our own times, for ‘many of the great historical tsunamis of the twenty-first century appear to be breaking first on their shores’.
From the glinting lures of populism, with its dual illusion of government for the people, by a man of the people, to populism’s obverse, technocracy and its fantasies of an antiseptic world of expertise, cleansed of inconvenient political realities; from the strains put on the social body by mass displacement, to policies that foster inequality and precarity in the name of perpetual growth, and the exhausting sense of living in a time of permanent crisis – so much of what seems to characterise our contemporary condition can be found in Lebanon. By concentrating, if even for a while, on this small country, we can better understand the workings of those techniques of government, those dispositions and ideologies, those bundles of words and practices and sentiments that frame the way we live now. And perhaps nothing defines our contemporary predicament more than the sense of living in a permanent present. Whether we are held in the sway of contingency, uncertain of what this day or the next might bring, or caught up in a tangle of constant consumption and compulsive, episodic living, forever checking what might have happened in the machine worlds we are tethered to, we seem to live an existence characterised by the ‘dissolution of past and future alike’. On the one hand, the ‘horizon’ of the future ‘is apparently closed’: there is no way for people to know where they are heading, no pensions or political programmes to cling on to. The future is simply ‘unthinkable … unimaginable’. On the other, ‘the past has apparently receded’. Once the live matter from which the present was shaped, the past is now reduced to bitter memories or ‘dusty images’, grounds only for resentment and nostalgia. This seems particularly clear in the case of Lebanon, where so many live day-by-day, where politics is devoid of ideology – devoid, in other words, of any consideration of the future – and where the past is commemorated or destroyed, but never remembered. But we can also glimpse, in looking at Lebanon, the outlines of alternative strategies for living – efforts to devise different ways of being in the world, less complicit in the compromises, the illusions and disillusions of late modernity, and founded in the making of community. Looking at Lebanon, in other words, can help us to understand the world in which we live now.