citizen and state


On Sunday, the Lebanese government was on trial on Beirut’s seaside Corniche. The presiding judge peddled the language of rights and weighed melons on the scales of justice. The jury was a group of citizens and non-citizens, many of the latter born and raised in Lebanon to Lebanese mothers yet unnaturalized because a Lebanese woman cannot pass on her citizenship to her husband and children. A Lebanese woman married to a non-Lebanese,  as well as a girl and a young man born to Lebanese women presented their cases in this public court, giving accounts of the legal hardships they face. The Lebanese government sat on the raised platform, unmoved and redundant, puffing on his cigar. We, the jury, got to vote in the end and the verdict was a unanimous and resounding “Guilty!”

You can read more about the protest in the Daily Star and here are some photographs.

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The aftermath of the Ethiopian Airline crash has demonstrated how the events of the past five years — the targeted assassinations and the wanton bombings — have turned us as a nation into quasi-experts in collecting debris, bucketing body parts, taking samples, testing for DNA, etc… This is not to belittle the efforts being put into this by various state and other institutions, but it is truly sad how throughout the haze of collective mourning, the sweeping up took place rather automatically this time. Even as citizens many of us have become adept at collecting information, checking their sources, verifying them through various social networks, and weeding out rumors from a veritable media mess.

An article by Hassan al-Zayn in today’s issue of al-Akhbar managed to eloquently capture an aspect of this sad state of affairs. This is a quick translation of some parts:

This is the [Lebanese] political crew’s understanding of the state: […] a spectacle concealing behind it several realities; the reality about administrations, their capacities, and their black holes; the reality of disaster. Have citizens been able to observe how these administrations function and have functioned? It is almost self-evident to admit that the state is incapable of playing a role beyond collecting corpses and plane parts thrown up by the sea! What have these administrations done except wait and play the role of the mother of the bride  [i.e. soaking in the attention when it is not her day]. Circling aircrafts; spreading boats at sea; calming families; playing the role of a caretaker who is true to the slogan of honoring the dead by burying them; standing in front of cameras and playing the roles of technocrats; taking care to exonerate the airport control tower and stressing the unlikeliness of sabotage… And, lest we forget: singing the praises of DNA, this charm repeated by “officials” the way conjurers repeat their gratuitous phrases.

[…]

Despite the wizardry performed by the political crew and its success in kidnapping the disaster of the Ethiopian plane, it has not been able to cover up for the poverty of its understanding of the concept of state.

[…]

The political crew has performed a trick no less fragile and cruel than the racist and sectarian talk flying like sparks in a dry haystack. The national carrier is being discussed as if it were a Superman accused of sectarian preferentialism among the sons of a unified country. Having neglected some Lebanese and deprived them of peace of mind, they find themselves forced to fly with incompetent airlines hailing from inferior countries, according to the Lebanese racist pyramid.

[…]

The Black box that the Lebanese are looking for is “the Lebanese state” whose plane has not taken off, but is rather sinking. And the political crew are but ghosts in the forms of captain, survivors, and angels.

This post is part of the Kolena Laila initiative.

Like most other places in the other Arab world, the Lebanese Laila is subject to an institutionalized form of patriarchy that finds its purest expression in the personal status. When a Lebanese woman is born she, like her male counterpart (say, Louai), has a personal status and a familial status and she can ask for an extract (ikhraj qayd, a form of ID) of both. When they get married, however, Laila and Louai part ways in the system. Whereas Louai opens his own “khanah” — a new familial extract listing the members of his nuclear family under his name — Laila is transferred from her father’s extract to that of her husband’s. At first glance it might seem that the new “khanah” actually belongs to the married couple, but should Laila get a divorce, she has to reapply to be transferred back to her father’s “khanah” while her children remain under her divorcee’s khanah.
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This might sound like a trivial matter, but bear with me.
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Many of the problems civil society is attempting to tackle today are linked to this form of registration. Into this personal status is written the sect, where the children follow the father’s. It also locates the individual in the sectarian matrix upon which marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws are based. Had we had a matriarchal society instead, where the khanahs are headed by women, these would still be issues to contend with. But because we live in a patriarchal society, Laila faces a problem Louai does not face. Should she get married to a non-Lebanese, she cannot start a “khanah” of her own under which she can include her children because Laila can give neither her children nor her husband the Lebanese citizenship. Though the way we are registered is not its cause, this problem traces yet another thread forming this Gordian knot of registration.
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By a fluke of the system, I happen to be one of few Lebanese women who has a khanah of her own. A few years ago, I was discussing with a friend what might be a possible way to maintain this institutional independence should I get married to a Lebanese. Eventually I did not, so now I am extending the solution we came up with into a generic recipe for my other, new problem: giving the Lebanese citizenship to my future children. For this, you would need:
2 unmarried people
1 understanding family
1 or more baby born out of wedlock
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* Do not get married just yet or, if married, get a divorce
* Have baby/babies out of wedlock — but in Lebanon — and register them in the nufus (personal register) as “illegitimate” (mawlud ghayr shar`i). This will add the children to your khanah or, usually, the family’s khanah and they will carry the last name of the family that acknowledges him. Documents needed for this procedure can be found here.
* Based upon this personal status, go to Internal Security and get the children a Lebanese passport each. Documents needed for this procedure can be found here.
* Finally, get married or remarried to your foreign husband, have him recognize the child or children as his own, and live happily ever after.
* To avoid the derision of bureaucrats, you could really abuse the system and get your father to do the paperwork!*
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I know that doing this will cause problems to most Lebanese women, but I bring it up also to illustrate the interrelatedness of many of the problems civil society is attempting to address individually: sectarianism, religion, patriarchy, the way we are registered… and how these are embedded in the smallest details of our personal lives. I think that changing one aspect of the system without addressing more fundamental issues helps at some level, but in the long run it is only a band-aid that serves to make the system even more Byzantine. To be relevant for wider sections of society, the right for a mother to give her family the Lebanese citizenship and women’s rights more generally need to be addressed both individually as well as part of the larger struggle for a more just, more inclusive Lebanon.
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* A disclaimer: I do not know anyone who has tried this method and I am in no way saying it is fool proof. In fact, if you find any problems with it, I would like to know before I try it myself!

On Thursday, Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries celebrated the first Lebanese woman to open a bank account for her minor children. The Women’s Union of the Progressive Socialist Party (i.e. Walid Junblat’s party), in coordination with the Central Bank and the Association of Banks in Lebanon, was instrumental in bringing about this accomplishment. Initiated locally, the project was funded by USAID and based on a legal study by the young lawyer Paul Morcos of Justicia.

PSP’s Women’s Union marketed the project primarily using the language of rights. But the problematic and the way Morcos proceeds to deal with it is a bit more complicated. The full study can be found here, but the main obstacle, according to the banks, was that in Lebanon the father is the compulsory legal guardian (وليّ جبري) for minor children. This is according to “secular” and religious law, both Christian and Muslim. This is a long story, but “secular” in this particular case relates to an article from Majallat al-Ahkam al-Shar`iyya, or Mecelle in Turkish — this being the Ottoman civil code of 1877 which was an attempt to codify the principles of the religious (Hanafi) court. Byzantine indeed!

The issue, hence, risked stepping on spiritual toes and questioning the patriarchal and sectarian foundations of Lebanon (God forbid). Morcos circumvented the problem by shifting the focus from the Gordian knot of guardianship and highlighting instead how allowing a woman to open such accounts not only does not threaten this existing structure, but also contradicts rights accorded to women and enshrined in Lebanese law. A very intelligent solution given the imperfect circumstances. The recommendations in Morcos’s study deal with the woman not from the point of view of her rights as a mother, but as a “stipulator/assignor in trust” in a commercial contract. Her son or daughter is “the beneficiary” and the bank “the assignor.” The achievement, nevertheless, is not to be underestimated. More so because it had to do with asserting rights already accorded to women by law and of which she has been stripped through cultural/economic practices. To meet this recommendation halfway, the banks need to engineer account types to allow it to progress legally.

Which brings me to another aspect of this accomplishment. The other study that fed into the project was led by economist Kamal Hamdan and dealt with a completely different aspect of the issue at stake: economic benefits. The study demonstrates that this bank “service” would lead to an additional 100,000 bank accounts over the next ten years with a cumulative value of $400 thousand. I think this too is key to understanding how concrete results were achieved in less than a year. The project has all the right ingredients, indicating broad political support: a civil society actor linked to a sectarian party, private banks interested in expanding their economic possibilities, public institutions interested in empowering private interests, and outside funding interested in shaping the world in its own image. Far from ideal, but it seems to get things done.

In the 1990s, when the Lebanese civil war was still a fresh memory, cultural products accused of “disturbing civil peace” began to disappear from the Lebanese scene. It proved to be a very flexible and useful category that included almost anything that touched on the war. I remember Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation disappearing overnight from Beirut’s bookstores. Many blamed it on Syria at the time, but the heavy hand of censorship continues to strike today in Lebanon, the Middle East’s “only breathing space.”

This year’s Beirut International Film Festival promised to be the event of the year for film buffs. It kicked off with no less than Francis Ford Coppola coming to Lebanon to launch his latest film, Tetro. But the atmosphere soon soured when General Security prohibited the screening of two of Paolo Benvenuti’s films. The reason: they offend the church of the Middle Ages. The church here being the Catholic church, of course, because General Security based its decision upon consultation with the notorious Catholic Center for Media (المركز الكاثوليكي للاعلام), also behind the banning of Da Vinci Code.

But the story goes beyond the Catholic Center. Using the worn-out weapon of “safeguarding civil peace” — as if we needed the cinema to whip things up — General Security is now undermining the work of a promising young talent, Simon al-Habr. They have censored a crucial part of his documentary Samaan bil-Day`ah, which deals precisely with the memory of the civil war — a war we are allowed to commemorate but not to allowed to remember. The director has put the censored bit on youtube, so you can see for yourself how threatening it is (includes English subtitles).

In today’s al-Akhbar, Pierre Abi Saab rightfully points out the hypocrisy of the so-called “liberal” “intellectuals” in Lebanon who were quick to jump the gun when the censorship concerned Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but remained silent about the undermining of local works such as al-Habr’s documentary and Mark Abi Rashid’s Help.

But I think there is another side to this. This censorship, like most censorship, is not only about the content. It is more about who is allowed to do the utterance. For what is utterly ridiculous about censoring al-Habr’s documentary in the name of “safeguarding civil peace” is that the censored recollection of the mountain war is nothing compared to the venom regularly spewed by Lebanese politicians when they evoke the civil war. And those politicians who wield violence, ironically (or not), seem to have more right to the molding of a collective memory of the war. What this kind of censorship effectively does is strip only us, the citizens, of this right.

Ghassan Su`ud has an article on elite marriages in Lebanon with a fascinating list of who is married to whom. It is interesting that a lot of these marriages cut across not only regional and local political divides, but, as the article points out, also sectarian ones. The latter is the case with the recent marriage between Nayla Twayni, recently elected member of parliament and daughter of assassinated Jubran Twayni, and Malik Maktabi, host of the show Ahmar bil Khatt al-`Arid — a recent episode of which provoked the ire of Saudi authorities into shutting down the LBC office in Jaddah. Since the Twaynis are a well-known Orthodox family and the Maktabis are Shiite, the marriage was cited by some as a living example of coexistence in Lebanon.

Rather than testify to some evasive form of Lebanese coexistence, however, these intersectarian marriages point to a double standard in the lives of some elite. Though her choice of spouse would lead one to expect a political career free of sectarian jingoism, when Nayla Twayni was campaigning in Ashrafiyah last spring, she more than once responded to attempts at undermining her “Orthodoxness” with counterattacks stressing al-`asab al-urthuduksi. The expression translates to “Orthodox vein,” which signifies a sense of belonging to a group. But the Arabic word `asab has a heavier thud to it, sharing its root with words such Ibn Khaldun’s `asabiyah, `asabi (nervous or quick to anger), and ta`assub (fanaticism). It remains to be seen, though, whether the same `asab will be struck with the electorate when the politician in question is a female entering into wedlock with a man with whom she will be spawning Shiite children.

If the recent election and marriage of Nayla bring some flagrant contradictions into relief, they are by no means unique to her. One is left wondering: is this a simple case of the elite cynically and hypocritically catering to and exploiting mass sentiments? Perhaps. But the use of this double standard of identification does not separate the elite form the masses as much as it separates the elite from themselves. The sort of individualism that we normally associate with European liberalism — the freedom to make one’s personal choices — finds an echo only in the personal aspect of the lives of the elite. In their public lives, however, their perpetuity remains bound to a system that reproduces them as an elite. This entails not only reproducing them as a category of the population — and hence the vigorous patriarchy — but also reproducing the communities that make them relevant as political leaders. The political significance of, say, the Pharaon family would be put to the test if there were no electoral body to be summoned as an “Orthodox” body to vote for members of the family as representatives — lack of political acumen notwithstanding.

As such, this public aspect of the political elite cannot be reduced to a cynical mask, for it is an integral aspect of their existence and probably even self-image as leaders. This dichotomy — between the personal and the political — is an ironic reversal of Hannah Arendt’s ideal types of the public and private spheres. With a suspicion of the private — the sphere of necessity, constraint, sameness, and passions — Arendt saw in the public realm as exemplified by the Greek polis the place for the exercise of decision, freedom, difference, and reason. In the case of the Lebanese elite, private lives are open to the virtues of the public sphere, as Arendt sees them, while their public lives are entangled in a most murderous web of political passions.

I am off for vacation in a semi-wilderness of the Arctic Circle where the Internet connection is dubious. So, I will be offline for a couple of weeks, but I leave you with this:

A friend of mine decided to come to Lebanon for a visit with her American husband. She has a Green Card and has been living in the US for almost a decade. She approaches the consul with a full-fledged application asking for a multiple-entry tourist visa to Lebanon. Mr. Consul stares at her application, stares at her wide-eyed and asks:

— And you are from India?

— Yes.

— What do you do for a living again?

— I am a professor at XYZ University.

— Well, call in a couple of weeks. But to be honest with you, I don’t think it is possible for you to get a visa.

Why, one wonders, would the country of services and tourism reject a tourist visa application beforehand when the applicant is obviously a tourist who has no intention of remaining in Lebanon? The keyword is of course “India,” making this story an instance of how labor-labels or function-labels attach to certain nationalities in Lebanon. This is a conversation I was having not too long ago with Sean, about how “Sri Lanki,” “Russian,” “Saudi,” “Syrian,” etc. often indicate not just a nationality, but a boxed function in Lebanese society. That is true to some degrees of many places, but the law in Lebanon reinforces this state of affairs and makes it difficult to move beyond it and have access to wider functions in society by, say, living long enough in the country and acquiring citizenship. With the result that second generation Sri Lankis in Lebanon today still have the job prescription of, well, “Sri Lanki.”

My friend’s story is an instance of this “labor profiling.” Mr. Consul was not merely being bigoted, though. Like a good bureaucrat, he was interpreting the law within the bounds of his duty. General Security’s outline of entrance visas to Lebanon shamelessly illustrates how the legal enshrines social prejudices into a boxing-in system of job-prescriptions. Legally, my friend should have been applying for a “Visa for work/labor” (link on the left) for that is where “India” appears. Had she been applying for a tourist visa (as a non-Arab), she should have been from one of the countries listed under “Entrance visa for the citizens of some foreign countries coming for the purpose of tourism.”

There is much to say about these visa categories, particularly about the exemptions listed under “Note” in “Entrance visa for the citizens of some foreign countries etc.,” as well as about the “Fashion model” visa, which functions as a thin veil for prostitution. General Security requires STD tests from those applying as fashion models and facilitates their visas during the shopping month and the summer festival. This used to be the function of the “Artist” visa until not too long ago, which partly explains why for the longest time prostitutes were colloquially referred to as “artistes” (French pronunciation).

So, I leave you with this riveting read on General Security’s website. And hope you enjoy what is left of the summer!

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