November 2008

The beating Omar Harqous received Thursday at the hands of SSNP members and the party’s subsequent apology — shamelessly packaged in justifications — have elicited a wave of reactions from various Lebanese journalists, including news sources invariably described as pro-Syrian or pro-Opposition. One of these is Samah Idris, editor-in-chief of al-Adab magazine. Idris is one of the few Lebanese public figures who have tried to shape a third line since 2005, balancing a respect for the necessity of resistance while simultaneously being very critical of Hizballah and its allies. Below is a translation-on-the-go of his op-ed in al-Akhbar on the Harqous beating.

In defense of myself… not of Omar!
by Samah Idriss

I do not like most of what Omar Harqus has written, particularly his classist and sectarian criticism of the Opposition’s sit-in (notwithstanding our position on that sit-in and on that dubious opposition). I still feel anger whenever I remember his repugnance at “the grilled meat under the statue of Riyad al-Solh,” “the hubbly bubblies that block the way,” and “the outhouses in the middle of the street” (al-Mustaqbal Newspaper 8/12/2006)! But I feel that the punches directed at Harqus were directed at me. And I feel that the blood that flowed from him is part of my blood… Or could be part of my blood and the blood of other writers if we overlook or make up excuses to justify what has happened. The hands that attacked Harqus do injustice, first and foremost, to their own principles and to their martyrs assassinated in Akkar [Halba] at the hands of people who took advantage of their defenseless small numbers. It would have been more worthy of [Antun] Sa`adah’s deep-rooted party not to use its members’ refusal to be photographed by Harqus as an excuse. What is worse is that the perpetrators called Harqus “Jewish”: Being Jewish is not a disgrace and should not be treated as such… Particularly not by those who adopt the causes of secularism and the fight against confessionalism.

I am not only defending Harqus. I am also defending, perhaps primarily, my right to say and write what I want. When I remain silent about [Paul] Shawul’s trial, Harqus’s beating, [Michel] Kilo’s imprisonment, the banning of Edward Sa`id’s books, or Samir Kassir’s murder, I am contributing to my own trial, beating, imprisonment, ban, or murder. Because with my silence I am preparing the ground for my own future oppression. I know that some of those expressing solidarity with Harqus would have kept quiet about the beating of another journalist form outside March 14. I also know that they kept quiet about my own trial — after an adviser of one of Iraq’s sultans filed a lawsuit against me — while they vied for the defense of Paul Shawul against General Aoun. And I know that some of them express solidarity only with the prisoners of conscience in Syria (who should be released immediately). Despite this, we, the people of the pen, make a grave mistake if we turn the slogan of “freedom of expression” into a political expedient. My position could be described as idealistic. But I do not find an alternative to it if we still believe that intellectual struggle is the only admissible weapon against our intellectual opponents.


The Iraqi poet Ahmad Matar’s most recent poem has been making the email rounds. It is written in Obama’s voice addressing the Arabs (bio note: Matar was a good friend of Naji al-Ali’s and has been living in London since the late 80’s).

To summarize the poem, the Arabs look to Obama to adopt them, asking him for the impossible (“find us a bowl for the bath” and “tailor pajamas for the ant”). His reply is: I am not of you nor are you of me (“I have not chosen Islam” and “I have not chosen to herd sheep”), I have been chosen by a people who refuse to be ruled by force and by a system that respects its people. So, get off, I don’t have the time (“I have more work than your majesty has time to rule”) and go find someone else to adopt you. And if you should ever hear my tune, it will be in the form of explosions.

Maybe it is a response to the Obama t-shirts selling in Damascus. Anyway, enjoy:

Addendum: Given this post’s popularity and the poem’s wide circulation over the Internet, I am providing a quick English translation.

From Obama by Ahmad Matar

From Obama…
To all Arab peoples and rulers:
Your pot banging at my door
Has exhausted me and driven me mad…
“Do this, o Obama…
Leave this, o Obama
Rain upon us cold and peace
O Obama.
Save a belt for the naked!
O Obama.
Find a bowl for the bath!
O Obama.
Tailor pajamas for the ant!
O Obama…”
A clanging that chews on dreams
And its echo vomits illusions
No sooner does the voracity of the noise
Begin to subside than it begins to grow again.
And I am a man with lots to do
More than the time you have for idleness
Longer than the reign of your majesty
So, let me begin by warning you
In order to have my excuse at the end:
I do not serve her who gave birth to you
To be whipped back and forth.
I am not your brother to be defamed
If I do not bring siblings together.
I am not your father to be implored
To be a guardian for you.
Your Arabism has not chosen me
Neither have I chosen Islam!
So, let someone else adopt you
Or remain forever orphans!
I am the proverb of a people
Who refuses to be ruled by force…
Of a system that respects the people.
And it is to them and to no one else
That my heart will flow in sweet melody
Even should my songs descend
Upon your ears… in explosions!
So take heed… As regimes and peoples
And take my example as inspiration.
But if you wish to remain
Like cattle in this world
Begging for security and food
Let me be honest with you… I am a man
Who through all the stages of his life
Not once has counted on
One day herding sheep!

أحمد مطر: من أوباما

مِن أوباما..
لِجَميعِ الأعرابِ شُعوباً أو حُكّاما:
قَرْعُ طَناجِرِكُمْ في بابي
أرهَقَني وَأطارَ صَوابي..
(افعَل هذا يا أوباما..
اترُك هذا يا أوباما
أمطِرْنا بَرْداً وسَلاما
يا أوباما.
وَفِّرْ للِعُريانِ حِزاما!
يا أوباما.
خَصِّصْ للِطّاسَةِ حَمّاما!
يا أوباما.
فَصِّلْ للِنَملَةِ بيجاما !
يا أوباما..)
قَرقَعَة تَعلِكُ أحلاماً
وَتَقيء صَداها أوهَامَا
وَسُعارُ الضَّجّةِ مِن حَوْلي
لا يَخبو حتّى يتنامى.
وَأنا رَجْلُ عِندي شُغْلٌ
أكثَرُ مِن وَقتِ بَطالَتكُمْ
أطوَلُ مِن حُكْمِ جَلالَتِكُمْ
فَدَعوني أُنذركُمْ بَدءاً
كَي أحظى بالعُذْر ختاما:
لَستُ بِخادمِ مَن خَلَّفَكُمْ
لأُسِاطَ قُعوداً وَقياما.
لَستُ أخاكُمْ حَتّى أُهْجى
إن أنَا لَمْ أصِلِ الأرحاما.
لَستُ أباكُمْ حَتّى أُرجى
لأكِونَ عَلَيْكُمْ قَوّاما.
وَعُروبَتُكُمْ لَمْ تَختَرْني
وَأنا ما اختَرتُ الإسلاما!
فَدَعوا غَيري يَتَبَنّاكُمْ
أو ظَلُّوا أبَداً أيتاما!
أنَا أُمثولَةُ شَعْبٍ يأبى
أن يَحكُمَهُ أحَدّ غَصبْا..
و نِظامٍ يَحتَرِمُ الشَّعبا.
وَأنا لَهُما لا غَيرِهِما
سأُقَطِّرُ قَلبي أنغاما
حَتّى لَو نَزَلَتْ أنغامي
فَوقَ مَسامِعِكُمْ.. ألغاما!
امتَثِلوا.. نُظُماً وَشُعوباً
وَاتَّخِذوا مَثَلي إلهاما.
أمّا إن شِئتُمْ أن تَبقوا
في هذي الدُّنيا أنعاما
تَتَسوَّلُ أمْنَاً وَطَعاما
فَأُصارِحُكُمْ.. أنّي رَجُلُ
في كُلِّ مَحَطّاتِ حَياتي
لَمْ أُدخِلْ ضِمْنَ حِساباتي
أن أرعى، يوماً، أغناما!

The following excerpt is from a book by Tawfiq Hasan Abi Nadir al-Shartuni written in the good ol’ tradition of returning Lebanese migrants. Though not devoid of nagging, it still contains some astute observations emanating from an inside/outside position which a returning migrant occupies. The book, al-Hayah fi Lubnan, was published in 1927 and I recommended it if only for the sheer reading pleasure. If, as a side effect, the feeling of “plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose” causes indigestion, independence day is the best time to honor this curious blend of emotions — pleasure and indigestion — that comes with feeling some sort of attachment to Lebanon:

الزعامة والاحزاب
لا زعامة في لبنان الكبير ولا في سوريا فما وجدت رجلاً يدعوه الشعب زعيماً بكل معنی الكلمة او بالاحری يحصل علی كل صفات الزعامة واما الاحزاب السياسية المنظمة فهي غير موجودة في البلاد ولم ارَ ما عدا الاحزاب الطائفية سوی بعض احزاب شخصية. وقد كنت بالامس اتجاذب اطراف الحديث واحد المأمورين المعروفين فقلت له الی اي الاحزاب تنتمي في سياسة شؤون البلاد فاجاب علی الفور انا من حزب فلان مسمياً لي شخصاً من ابناء لبنان المعروفين فسألته ما هي مطاليبكم الاساسية وما هو بروغرامكم الذي تعتقدون من ورائه باقالة البلاد من عثرتها فارتبك في الجواب اذ لا بروغرام ولا اساس مكين لسوء الحظ لاحزابنا ثم اردف هذه العبارة لا احد يقدر ان يُنهض البلاد من انهيارها سوی اعجوبة ربانية فعندئذٍ فهمت ان الاحزاب السياسية في لبنان وسوريا ليس من شأنها السعي وراء سعادة الوطن ورقيه بل للتربع علی كرسي الوظائف لا غير

Za`amah and parties
There is no za`amah [political leadership] neither in Greater Lebanon nor in Syria. I have not found a man called by the people za`im in all the meaning of the word or rather with all the characteristics of a political leader. As for organized political parties, these do not exist in the country and I have only seen in addition to confessional parties, a few personal parties. Yesterday, I was having a conversation with a well-known official and I asked him: “What party do you belong to in the management of the affairs of the country?” He answered immediately: “I am from the party of filan,” naming a prominent Lebanese man. I asked him: “What are your political demands and what is the program with which you intend to lift the county out of its crisis?” He fumbled for an answer since there is unfortunately neither program, nor a stable basis for our political parties. He then added: “Only a divine miracle can lift the country from its collapse.” I understood then that political parties in Lebanon and Syria are not concerned with the happiness of the homeland and its advancement, but are solely concerned with attaining posts.

Source: Tawfiq Hasan Abi Nadir al-Shartuni, al-Hayah fi Lubnan: Yatadamman mabahith tarikhiyah wa-ijtima`iyah wa-adabiyah wa-akhlaqiyah. Beirut: al-Matba`ah al-Adabiyah, 1927.

  • In the wake of Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s attack on Iran and the Shi`i expansionist threat it poses to Sunni Islam, rhetoric against Hizballah, Iran, and the Shi`a in general found new wind. Only this time, Salafi websites are using the writings of Christian kuffar to argue their finer points.
  • Nawwaf Musawi, Hizballah international relations officer, attacked David Miliband for calling Hizballah’s militant arm terrorist, asking whether De Gaulle’s resistance from Britain was also terrorism, as Nazi propaganda called it back then. Musawi further stressed his point by likening Miliband’s characterization to Goebbel’s Nazi propaganda.
  • With its transformation from financial to economic, the crisis finally made an entry to the Lebanese market… through the jewelry sector. Demand has apparently decreased by 50% [Note: maybe this means it is approaching normal]. While a certain class of people with investments abroad is obviously suffering over jewelry, the economy as a whole is now bracing for an upcoming world-wide recession.
  • The Lebanese national debt is now at $48,414,000,000, or about 196.47% of the GDP. Have a nice day.

Yesterday, all branches of the Lebanese University (public), private and public schools, professional and technical schools, as well as the general administration participated in a teachers’ strike. About 100,000 teachers educating 1 million students. The strike was accompanied by a well-attended sit-in in front of parliament. Press coverage was mostly pathetic, consisting of a few lines (as in al-Nahar), discussing primarily Fatih al-Islam under the heading of the strike (as in al-Balad), or covering more of Bahiya al-Hariri, Minister of Education, than the strike itself (as in al-Mustaqbal).

No surprises there. The strike is not interesting because this time it is not “political,” in the only definition of “politics” that finds resonance in Lebanon. i.e. The teachers are not being used as a mule by one political party or other in the pursuit of larger goals, such as the vagaries of identity, resistance, or democracy. The demands are, simply, their wages and retirement plans.

Given that their demands are not “political”, do not expect Ghassan Ghosn, head of the General Labor Union, to come out in support. According to Ghosn, the Union “mobilizes according to a set agenda.” It would have been a more honest, non-roundabout justification to say “mobilizes according to someone’s set agenda.” In an irony of ironies, president Sulayman called upon Ghosn to put an end to the divisions and unify the efforts of the workers.

Do not expect Hizballah, defender of the weak and liberator of the oppressed, to shut down the country on their behalf either. Do not expect “their” parliamentary representatives to take up the issue (only one parliamentarian was at the sit-in). And do not be surprised that Nabih Berri, Muhammad Shatah, and Fuad Sanioura have not even deigned to reply when the teachers’ unions tried to schedule a meeting. Bahiya al-Hariri responded the day before the strike was planned. Everyone is busy with much more important things, like David Miniband, Jimmy Carter and whoever else constitutes the real, rather than imagined, constituency of Lebanese parliamentarians and ministers.

The most audacious justification for not joining the strike came from the Workers’ Liberation Front. According to `Ismat `Abd al-Samad, “The political situation is comfortable, let it continue like this. Why would anyone want to unsettle it?” Which makes for a very interesting argument since if such a strike was to take place when the political situation is unsettled, then it would be termed a “political mobilization.” Ihtarna ya qar3ah min wayn badna n-bousik! (You have confused us, oh, squash, were to kiss you from).

Although the teachers’ unions made clear that this move comes at a time when there is a unity government and, therefore, does not play into party politics, there have been countless self-serving moles calling their demands “political.” No one heeded these sabotage attempts as calls for the strike were answered across Lebanon — in the south and Beqa` as well as Tripoli, Sidon, Kurah, and Matn. There is nothing more threatening to the complacency of Lebanese politicians than these strikes when the sectarian divisions they build their popularity on are momentarily forgotten. The frustration is that in a mess of complex, contradictory, and multifaceted identities the Lebanese like to wear, when the only accepted and narrow definition of “politics” rears its ugly head again, only the sectarian identity comes to the fore.

There is a good post over at The Magnes Zionist on the possible makeup of Obama’s Middle East team — based on the author’s opinion as well as his conversations with people in the president-elect’s inner circle. The post raises an interesting question towards the end: while it is perfectly acceptable for people empathizing with the Israeli point of view to be part of Obama’s team, why is it inconceivable for someone empathizing with the Palestinian point of view?

What I find most interesting is that with Barack Obama, his history, and his ties to people like Rashid al-Khalidi*, these kinds of questions become more plausible.

* They know each other from the time they were both teaching at the University of Chicago.

Armand al-Nahar

"World waiting for new American president" (Arman Humsi, al-Nahar)

When I first moved to Hyde Park many years ago I was perplexed by an unusual and exotic word sticking out of the front yards and porches of this otherwise quaint neighborhood: OBAMA. At the time the now elect-president was still a state politician, but the word did not remain obscure for long as the man behind it won a seat in the senate and then decided to run for president.

Against many odds, Obama won the presidential race in an election that shattered many myths the world had of America and, more so, Americans had of themselves. Although Obama is far from an ideal candidate, after eight years of the mishaps of Republican rule, one cannot but breathe a sigh of relief.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, that the seat will dictate politics to the man rather than the other way around already began to manifest itself with Obama’s rise to national politics. Known in his Chicago days as a harsh critic of Israel, Obama very consciously remodeled his utterances over the past eight or so years to rise to the occasion. (This article has a delicious photograph of Obama listening attentively to Edward Said at the dinner table). In another of these twists and turns, Obama, who opposed the war on Iraq, is making a relocation of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan sound like a change of policy.

Everything, from the character of the man to his choice of pastor, indicates that he would make an excellent neighbor just as he was an excellent local politician. Some Palestinians still entertain the hope that being of African origin and part of a persecuted minority he might exhibit some understanding and sympathy for their plight. As endearing as this is, realistically speaking, the most the Middle East can hope for is that follies and misadventures will no longer be declared policy. The other side of the coin is, of course, that in his golden mouth, follies and misadventures could regain legitimacy in the eyes of many.