Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
There is a sense of being in the midst of a maelstrom. 2,750 tonnes of an explosive substance have blown up the port of Beirut, its concentric circles of death, destruction, and displacement shattering through parts of the city and the lives of people there. Floods have rushed through Yemen, where the population is being punished by an unforgiving and unforgivable war and consequent public health outbreaks. Mauritius declared a state of emergency after more than one thousand tons of oil turned the sea black, endangering two ecologically protected marine reserves. Israel, with the ever longer litany of its colonial crimes, fired a missile into a primary school in Gaza, and continues to demolish the homes of Palestinians, this time in Bethlehem. The United Arab Emirates has confirmed its betrayal of over seventy years of popular struggle and support to stop the ongoing Zionist colonization of Palestine and normalized diplomatic relations with the colonizing authorities. The murder of those who fight to build conditions of dignity and safety for the people of Iraq—from the deathscape rolled out by the masters of war from 2003 onward—continues unabated. More recent manifestations of the Black Lives Matter movement have been met with a repressive ferocity which is all-too-familiar to the subjects and citizens of the United States’ allies, especially those it arms and abets. Kashmir marked a year since the Indian occupying authorities stripped its semi-autonomous status and imposed a military lockdown. And, of course, most of us are under lockdown because of COVID-19 (apart from British government senior advisor Dominic Cummings, that is).
What is happening in the world? There is also the sense that daily life for most people on this planet is practiced through a permanent, reformulating—sometimes terrorizing and other times banal—state of chaos. A question that traces the timid steps into this sense is, what can we understand, and do?
I am going to focus here on those who hope to practice solidarity with people in Lebanon, with the intention that this discussion has implications for other locations and situations too. We can start, in trying to think through this, by saying very clearly: the Lebanese political class is responsible for this crime. Then, say to yourself, also very clearly, that the political class in Lebanon is your political class too. It is not an anomaly in an otherwise compassionate and well-functioning world. Reject the order which others those people from whom the dearest price is extracted across the terrain of global capitalism. Do not say to your children, “at least we are not Lebanon / Gaza / Syria / (replace ad. infinitum here). If you are from a country that is implicated through arms sales (e.g. France), dodgy (e.g. Saudi Arabia) “diplomacy” (e.g. Iran), economic relations (including offshore holdings, e.g. UK) or sanctions (e.g. USA) that contribute to the enduring suffering of people, you need to work also to get your own house in order. This means we renew our commitments to organizing locally to challenge politically bankrupt systems and state repression (and other things which make life unliveable) that are being rightfully condemned in the current context in focus, Lebanon.
What is the implication of thinking in this way? The first thing it suggests is that what is needed from people is solidarity, and not charity, and that solidarity exists before and continues beyond catastrophe. This has come from long-standing traditions of organizing for social change that have linked people across the globe through ideologies and actions which forge paths for liberation, and other ways of being in the world. It also de-centers the donor and would ideally reduce the capacity for performative stunts in which people bringing aid think it acceptable to pose among the rubble of others’ lives.
Could Emmanuel Macron—an ex-banker whose economic policies have been met with almost two years of strikes and protests and who greets people in France with police violence bolstered by authoritarian legislation—carry out the same grotesque public relations stunt at home that he performed in Lebanon, one wonders? Reports from the ground in Beirut also point to a less warm reception than most major media outlets have covered. Just twelve days before the explosion, his foreign minister literally changed the metaphor “help yourself and God will help you” to “help yourself and France will help you.” He refused to give additional assistance to Lebanon unless it adopted the proposed IMF package. The IMF’s chokehold and its offers of funding in return for drastic austerity measures have been instrumental in perpetuating ever-greater wealth disparity, without addressing the structural causes of poverty and socioeconomic despair. We can practice solidarity while rejecting the paternalistic narrative of saving a “pitiable” Lebanon. And while we are at it, let us also ditch the tired old “phoenix” narrative—there is no need for any place or people to rise from the ashes so many times in order to live up to this perhaps well-meaning but ultimately exhausting trope.
To those circling the remains to save the day, whether former colonizers or recent exploiters, we can learn from the brilliant work of others and say: yes, pay up, without the televised drama—you owe that much, and probably more.
Speaking of televised drama: can we be cautious of the apparent sudden interest of the English language mainstream media in the realization of the hopes and dreams of the Lebanese people? Can we avoid engagement with the pornography of suffering that is reproduced across media networks, and ask ourselves what is the purpose of these reproduced images and tropes? Ariella Aicha Azoulay writes that photographs are an invitation to the production of meaning, a potential understanding that is “continued and revealed when others engage with them.” The photographs of personal devastation and pain have been instrumentalized (with or without the consent of the people in them) to create an enduring idea of a misfortunate, helpless subject. Clearly, those who wish to invest in their own visions for the future of Lebanon and (the region) have invited themselves to “save” this “poor Lebanon” through various externally designed and imposed aid programmes. The mainstream media functions also as a pressure point to justify the political policies and often deadly ventures of these powers. The current instrumentalization of suffering in Lebanon sits comfortably with previous campaigns around the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002 and claims to “save” Afghan women by invading their home in 2001. These are among the most nefarious examples, but there are many others.
Staying with the subject of mainstream media: as satisfying as it may be to see a crook like Gibran Bassil given a dressing down by a reporter, it is difficult not to wonder where this firing line of questioning and attitude is when it comes to other leaders. There are politicians the world over doing—ad verbatim—the things this presenter is taking the former Lebanese foreign minister to task for: practicing nepotism, sustaining corruption, entrenching a ruling elite that “plunges a country into despair.” There are a number of critiques to be made of this, one of which would be Orientalism. But toward a more practical critique, we can ask Becky Anderson to kindly bring on more members of the global elite, and wring them out to dry over the crimes that they commit and facilitate within and outside of their borders. Because this kind of insistence on separation pretends that the problems in Lebanon are not also connected to the country’s deep entrenchment in a global capitalist financial system and its networks or to the regimes in countries where these deliberately delineated narratives are being produced. Journalists in Lebanon are raising this challenge themselves, despite risking graver consequence than a CNN presenter in a studio in the United States faces. Together with a multitude of scholars and policy analysts, they are sharing other important and illuminating accounts from the difficult circumstances on the ground, and you can see some of their work here, here, here, here, and here.
In the immediate post-emergency phase, NGOs with the maximum access to funds and equipment to reach people through their official capacity are being touted as channels for assistance. The Lebanese Red Cross has been widely suggested by those on the ground as the best recipient of funds for its work in the immediate aftermath of the explosion and the street demonstrations that followed. In the longer term, it will be important to revive or develop links with grassroots organizations and support them in taking the lead. Thinking along the lines of mutual aid and support that works with people on the ground will be crucial to bypass the hungry investors and private developers who, in alliance with the political class, have begun preparing schemes to cash in on reconstructive work. “Those who cause destruction will not be trusted to rebuild.”
“Crisis” is of course an opportunity, and a globe-spanning NGO and INGO industry is a testament to that. Some of these organizations employ well informed and incredibly dedicated staff members who have done important and life-saving work. We can acknowledge that while at the same time critiquing some of the premises of these enterprises. As well as being structurally questionable, these liberal NGOs have arguably also been sucking in funding and drawing in people working from on the ground initiatives. They have contributed, to a certain extent, to the erasure of long-existing community-based collectives, political organizations, and worker-based movements that have held great power for social transformation in the past. In the long term—and it looks like it will be a long-term commitment—the pretense of apolitical aid is not how we should invest our efforts and work.
The obvious can be said: people are already doing things. How can you find out what they need from you? There is the hope that various social forces can unite ranks on the ground in Lebanon and organize toward the recovery of its future, as has already been intimated by some scholars and activists based there. Can we read from their efforts what we can do in support? Do we dare to think about work that re-routes channels of development and recovery through links that run among people rather than through corporate and political profiteers? I do not know. A start might be to talk among our people (where we are based) about how we might re/organize ourselves, despite the great efforts of reactionary political powers to prevent us from doing so, especially post-2011. From there, can we then speak and think with our friends elsewhere about the work necessary for a future that we share? If the short history of 2011 onwards teaches anything, it is that people in power keep each other in their palaces and presidential suites while we (try to) keep each other safe, alive, active, and steadfast.
A Bahraini activist has described how the experience of organizing a support campaign for Palestinians injured and displaced by the 1967 Naksa was, in praxis, the root of her own work for political and social transformation through a local woman’s organization. Members of the Iraqi Communist Party and the Iranian Tudeh communist party played a role in the development of political activism and labor-based struggles in other states of the Gulf from the 1950s. In the twenty years that followed the 1948 Nakba in Palestine, the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN) grew into and through networks that stretched from South Yemen to Algeria: the simple contribution of ninety percent of the first salary of one of its central members, a doctor from Kuwait, allowed the group to establish operations in its early days. The social, educational, cultural, and revolutionary work by the Palestine Liberation Organisation in its early days was built through financial contributions from Palestinians living in the Gulf. In Dhofar, a leftist revolutionary movement which successfully sustained armed resistance against brutal and unflinching British colonial military suppression from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s brought together volunteers that included: a military trainer from Palestine, an agricultural engineer from Bahrain, fighters from Kuwait, and teachers from Bahrain, among others. A media office in Damascus worked to support these efforts.
These tracks were laid down through forums such as student groups, workers’ associations, sports, cultural, and professional clubs, and cultural and intellectual production, and ran through political movements. These people linked themselves, both ideologically and practically, with others like them and with struggles for other worlds elsewhere, such as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Cuba. We do not need to romanticize these past experiences or pretend that relations were simple or unchanging in order to draw some lessons about what they had in common. That is, solidarity is invested and developed through relationships of commitment, friendship, love, and comradery. At times, they bypass the imagined communities imposed by the post-imperial bureaucracies of borders, identities, and nationalities, within and toward a shared political vision. Over time, they sought a sense of clarity about the links between working in one’s own location, and the place for working for and with others (through financial, technical, and moral support) through the scope of solidarity, and not charity. The fronts and bases were rooted locally but the links that grew and the scope of work was regional (sometimes broader). There is beauty and power in working with and through differences and also allowing distances to collapse in the knowledge that we are fighting for ourselves as we are fighting with (and not only “for”) others. This work does not ask for the erasure of difference in identities, specificities of lived experiences, or methods of contestation. Instead, it starts with sites of identity or location as an entry point into developing a materialist understanding of socio-political and economic relations, our place in this matrix, and both the scope and limitations of where we can act within a “togetherness” that is larger than an individual life.
Twelve– كلهم يعني كلهم
Although that is not the focus of this article, it is important to acknowledge that these social groups and movements that acted with great popular power, at different points in time, also interlinked with states and state apparatus. For now we can keep that as a reminder that if we are serious about changing the conditions which led to the most recent catastrophe in Beirut, the ultimate end goal of our work has to be for the capture of these states along with the unrooting of military/ authoritarian/ oligarchic/ patriarchal capitalist regimes. And that our work in solidarity and for social transformation is part of that. Is there a way for those of us committed to solidarity with the people of Lebanon, and the people of our shared region, for this reconstruction of Lebanon to be different than the previous one? Is there a way to overturn the previous one, which emerged out of the civil war there (1975–1990) and shaped postwar political, economic, and social life, and ultimately, the explosion at the port on August 4?
We started with a silence, let us finish with a song. Based on centuries-old Amazigh folklore, and brought into Arabic by a Portuguese-Palestinian band, it says, “[of] the darkness, when you feel scared, sing for me.” We are listening.