Arabesque – Excerpt

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A beautiful excerpt from Anton Shammas’s Arabesque.

Nearby, the men who had fled to the fields in the morning began to gather, as the rumor reached them that the capitulation had proceeded peacefully. And thus they stood, the soldiers of the Jaish El-Yahud on the one side and the inhabitants of Fassuta on the other, until from somewhere a mijwez was whipped out and to its strains the men who had come back from the fields arranged themselves in a semicircle and their feet responded as if of their own accord to the rhythm of the melody. They broke into the “Dabkeh Shamaliyeh.” A wild Galilean dabkeh, which had in its something of the joy of those who had been passed over by a fatal decree, and something of the pleasure of submission by the weak, and something of the fawning before the stranger, and something of the canniness of the villager who draws the most unexpected weapon at the most unexpected moment. It also had in its just plain capriciousness and frivolity. One way or the other, by the time the feet tired of the dance and the capriciousness of the defeated had cooled down, all those present in the ceremony were covered with a thin white layer of dust, and as is the way of all dust, it did not distinguish between the conquering soldier and the conquered villager. After which the official part of the ceremony began, and the celebrants were gently commanded to hand over to the army any weapons in their possession, including the ones concealed in the haystacks and the ones stashed in the fields. (pages 121 – 122)

Some Thoughts on Remembering the Lebanese Civil War, Literature, and History

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  • The Civil War 

Fifteen years ravaged Lebanon under the unwitting clouds of a mindless civil war fueled by sectarian violence and geopolitical struggles which found their perfect battleground in the small patch of land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. From 1975 to 1990, “144,000 killed; 184,000 injured; 130,000 kidnapped; and at least 17,000 missing…175 towns were partially or completely destroyed” (Ghosen & Khoury 382). Fifteen years and it ended in a hasty reconciliatory settlement named after the Saudi city in which it was agreed upon: the Ta’if accord. The consequences, however, of the Ta’if accord would include an amnesty law forgiving all (war) crimes committed before its date; and consequently, all the war lords, with large powers and larger egos now in their grip—they did not “lose” the war after all— constituted the political spectrum after the war, controlling the tripartite division of power. All will be well, it was thought. In other words, all shall be forgotten. This aim to forget shall not be read in any way other than an attempt to erase debt in an economy of guilt. If Nietzsche taught us anything, it is precisely that the interplay between debt and guilt are preserved through a strict mnemonic strategy for remembering.

The attempt to wipe out the restricted economy of debt failed. Residues—waste matter—were discarded and only came to sting back in the inevitable recoil of a general economy that subsumes exactly that which we wish to exclude. The assassinations and killings have since come back sporadically, like spasms of a revisiting trauma; simultaneously, a waste-garbage problem grew in the city in the form of large mountains of garbage along its seacoasts; if the nation could be read psychoanalytically, then calling-cards would’ve been an apt description of this phenomenon. In all cases, something was owed; something was forgotten, or better yet, repressed. (Is this not also the excessive charge which returns with Nada Sehnaoui‘s 2008 installation: “Haven’t 15 Years of Hiding in the Toilets Been Enough?)

Nada Sahnaoui

However, while politicians favored the suppression of the civil war, a budding civil society including artists and writers were challenging the forceful impression of collective amnesia supported by the unchanging political landscape. Experimental media and writing have emerged to challenge the status quo and present the subject of the civil war in strategic ways so as recuperate and fill the gap in Lebanon’s recent history: “This body of experimental media provides a critical historiography of Lebanon’s recent past, particularly in regards to the country’s fifteen-year civil war” (Westmoreland 176). These new ways battle the general status quo of Lebanon’s history as a land based on erasure and reconstruction:

Beirut-based journalist Robert Fisk notes, the mythology of Lebanon’s history is premised on a recurrent destiny of destruction and revival. North of Beirut at Nahr al-Kelb (“Dog River”), “inscriptions, steles, cuniform reliefs and plaques” commemorate 2500 years of conquesting armies, from Nebuchadnezzar II to the British army in 1941 (53). The Lebanese spirit of rejuvenation that is quick to say “Beirut will rise again” fails to mention that by the same premise it will likely fall again, too. (Westmoreland 177)

This new trend of art readjusts the switchboard so as to disable an erasure and enable a re-memberance of the events of the civil war, a remembrance which disallows another famous dictum in Lebanon from happening: “history repeats itself.”

  • Architecture, Writing and Memory

“Both the novelist and the architect,” says Khoury in “The Memory of the City”, “sculpt the relationship between a space and its living memory” (142). This relationship is based on the Arabic literary tradition which etymologically links the word bayt—Arabic for house—with the verse of a poem. Accordingly, the rebuilding of the city is linked directly to writing. In other words, writing after the war in itself becomes a bildungsroman. However, the direction of architecture and that of the writer do not necessarily parallel each other, for as Khoury remarks, the reconstruction of Beirut involved an erasure of the past and a look to the future which forsake the present. Consequently, architecture effects a kind of cultural amnesia. On the other hand, writing emerges after the war as the only viable way of survival during as well as after the war. Therefore, even though there’s a relationship between architecture and writing in Arabic literary tradition, this relationship is an antagonistic one:

Where an architect works to establish differences, organize relationships, and define limits, a writer works to tear down these limits, to transcend definitions, to open spaces onto one another. As literature tries to carve doorways between the declared and the undeclared, architecture seeks to hang the doors which come between them. (Khoury, “The Memory” 139).

If architecture needs to destroy the ruins of the past in order to rebuild a future and/or a simulacrum of the past, writing, in a mythic sense, becomes the harbor for the memory of the past: “In this city systematically ravaged by civil war, the only space left for memory is literature” (Khoury, “The Memory” 139). In this distinction between architecture as the space for the future-to-be or the past-that-never-was and literature as the space for memory, Khoury is presenting his own critique of the reconstruction project of the post-war years: Given the polemics of reconstruction and deconstruction that the city’s architects and urban designers have introduced, Beirut may return, not as a city, but as a jail” (Khoury, “The Memory” 140). Architectural re-building becomes associated with a prison system to which writing stands in opposition. His argument is pivoted on this difference which subtly argues that the re-building of the city regenerates a myth which disregards the present and the recent past, namely the civil war and its remembrance. Faced with such an effacement of a traumatic period, the writer emerges as a survivor of and for memory. In other words, whereas architecture re-builds, literature re-members.  The very act of writing, however, should be done in a mythic discourse in order to allow the “civil war and its remembrance” to play a “role in the regenerated myth” (Khoury, “The Memory” 142).

  • Survival and Memory

In Politics of Friendship, Derrida posits: “Surviving – that is the other name of mourning whose possibility is never to be awaited. Nor does one survive without mourning” (Derrida 13). Perhaps, one can better understand this sentence if we refer to another book of Derrida, Demeure, in which he explains that “Death is not impossible but necessary, nor is death impossible and necessary, no, the impossible and the necessary are neither connected by an ‘and’ nor disconnected by a “but.” Death is, in a single stroke, the ‘impossible necessary’” (Derrida 47). Speaking on Blanchot, Derrida goes on to connect this impossible necessary death to Blanchot’s “unexperienced experience”. Connecting these two passages from Derrida, surviving, as living on after the possibility of death (and in its triggering of the possibility of mourning) becomes implicated in a temporal order which fuses past and future. Surviving, then, becomes exactly the living-on after the unexperienced experience in both cases: the survival of the experience of the unexperienced as well as the survival of the unexperienced in the experience. In other words, survival emerges as a co-lapsing of the immediate experienced past with the possibility of the unexperienced future: the co-lapsing of mourning with the possibility of your own death. As such, survival is distancing and keeping away from death while at the same time keeping it in sight. Freud writes on this relationship between survival and death in “Thoughts For Times On War and Death”:

“Man could no longer keep death at a distance, for he had tasted it in his pain about the dead; but he was nevertheless unwilling to acknowledge it, for he could not conceive of himself as dead. So he devised a compromise: he conceded the fact of his own death as well, but denied it the significance of annihilation…His persisting memory of the dead became the basis for assuming other forms of existence and gave him the conception of a life continuing after apparent death.” (Freud)

Through this Freudian intervention, we notice that death and its survival (or mourning) traverse both directions of the temporal arrow: the dead and the re-membering of the dead forces a future projection of one’s own survival after one’s inevitable unpexerienced experience of death. In Blanchotian terms, it can be said that this unexperienced experience occurs in the space between the living and the dead. The witnesses of the war, the fighters and the citizens don’t merely become post-war survivors, but wanderers between the living and the dead: undead people with broken subjectivities.

  • The Subjective Break and Fictional Histories

The subject is dialectically fluctuating between the symbolic that forces him to repress—not accept—and the Real—the events of History which the subject cannot grasp. However, the dialectical produces the subjective break that Deleuze and Guattari describe: “Like all other breaks, the subjective break is not at all an indication of a lack or need (manque), but on the contrary a share that falls to the subject as a part of the whole, income that comes its way as something left over…That is because breaks or interruptions are not the result of an analysis; rather, in and of themselves, they are syntheses. Syntheses produce divisions” (Deleuze and Guattari 44).  The syntheses of the dialectical relationship which constitute the subject, produces a disjointed subject, an inevitable multiplicity. Moreover, this multiplicity is indicative of a residue, of “something left over”; in other words, the unaccounted for waste of memory, history—the waste of the city. However, if “In this city systematically ravaged by civil war,” as Elias Khoury claims, “the only space left for memory is literature” (Khoury, “The Memory 139), then this literature is a schizophrenic one (in which syntheses are Deleuzian divisions) and traumatic (in which the memories are those of a Blanchotian unexperienced experience). A literature as a result of the dialectic between the Real and the Symbolic—History and the Law. The only way to historicize becomes through the writing of fiction. A history that is no longer straightly referential also requires a novel which is not straightforwardly referential—the historical novel becomes replaced by the traumatic novels such as Yalo. The only way to historicize and re-member is to do so immanently: in a time of lost referentiality, it is the return of the unexperienced, the repressed which indexes history, however fictional this representation of history may be.

Lebanese criminals order Dan Mcullun to leave or die when he saw the body of a young Palestinian Girl.

  • Sources:
  1. Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 1st ed. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.
  2. Derrida, Jacques, and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Demeure: Fiction and Testimony. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000. Print.
  3. ————. The Politics of Friendship. 1st ed. London: Verso, 2005. Print.
  4. Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud . 1st ed. 14. London: Hogarth Press, 1966. Print.
  5. Ghosn, Faten, and Amal Khoury. “Lebanon after the Civil War: Peace or the Illusion of Peace?” Middle East Journal. 65.3 (2011): 381-397. Print.
  6. Khoury, Elias. “The Memory of the City.” Grand Street. 54.Autumn (1995): 137-142. Web. 25 Dec. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25007930&gt;.
  7. Westmoreland, Mark. “Catastrophic Subjectivity: Representing Lebanon’s Undead.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. 30 (2010): 176-2010. Print.

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Le Temps de la Mère

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Christ…He thinks of the abortion he missed, lying wrapped in bloody rags on the floor of a cheap hostelry. He is excited by the thought of his mother in mortal sin, and of a harsher love than he ever knew. How was it possible for her to forgo the delight of hacking God’s fruit from her womb? (That was a chance for religion.) [Nick Land]

Outside. East coast coldness grazes my bare right hand. The sun is setting, switchboard of the night. Darkness begins to highlight 12th street. Key Food, trees, cars, Sweetwolf’s, Red Horse Cafe—all highlighted. I finish my cigarette and fling it over cars. These highlighted streets meet many flings. Inside.

Virtually. Wirelessly. A gust of wind heard from outside which calls. Switchboard of nature. Mother. Be there. Outside. Inside. The stanza, Italian for room. Pieza in Spanish. The piece which is for yourself. The room which is your voice. The womb which is your inner space. And the world of the mother outside. This I learned.

The incidence of lethargy demands a refraction of events, if only to highlight the processes of these events. So this is refraction, not reflection. Naturally, things are skewed. The several agents require some disappointment and some appeasement.

French press, pressing. Neo-liberal policies and the polities of lateness press on my shoulders, stressful pressure. French press, calling; a bit of half-&-half—the tawny tan of coffee, a first sip and the inevitable laxative feel. It is the late afternoon. The sun is setting. This is my first cup of coffee. First hour of my day. It is the last hour of the day. The sun is setting; switchboard a la pineal gland, or it may be a comfortable sinking mattress and my ever-drowning body.

Virtually. Wirelessly. A gust of wind heard outside calls; the voice which enters the stanza, the pieza, the “room of one’s own”. Should I answer and pick up the telephone? I hear and cannot be indifferent. I see and cannot be but subject. Be here. Now. But also, because it’s here now, was there before. Because it’s here now, will be there later. Before. Now. Later. This is chronological. But logically, perhaps cosmologically, it is Now. Before and Later. More coffee-laxative.

Pluck. The scenes of murder. Twitter feed mixed with the affects of loss and the twitter litter of the numerous luxurious dulled many. Pluck. Garbage finally found its recycled medium through binary codes. Swoosh. 140 characters of shit. I flush the toilet.

…And the need for communication with an absent other is already a radical affirmation of the loss of the other. The symptom of the telephone.

The room is also cold. The heaters are off. The floors miss the rug and the rug is not to be found or sought. My left knee shivers. I call it Parkinson.

I thought this virtual, wireless connection was a rebellion against patriarchal God; an affirmation of future motherhood. The voice from afar that disturbs the clergymen. But, the loss and the withdrawal of the maternal is something that the telephone maintains as connection. It erases and suspends the loss acting like a pacifier. The telephone as voice of the future mother of one or two children. And the telephone which performs the disconnection that makes this future impossible. It de-simulated the very loss that it marks. A monument to an irreducible disconnection. The telephonic communication doesn’t allow us to mourn the loss we feel by it.

I try to read. But perhaps I’m hungry. I read the twitter litter, the 140 characters of shit:
Dismal news stories of Israeli war crimes and criminals. Desolate news stories of Palestinians dead and the Frustrating Western propaganda [140 characters]. The masturbatory upheaval of the inner spirit of revolution & the pent-up rage followed by the post-coital feeling of complete helplessness [140 characters].

…and here the pressure of distance lies. The distance which highlights the aging of the potential mother. The potential mother which is made impossible by the distance amplified by the telephone. Sons and lovers kept apart from mothers and mothers-to-be. Mother as land, as Palestine and Homs and Beirut. Mother as woman. Mother as the caretaker of the womb, the tomb and the crypt of all hope and anticipation. Mother, the trigger of revolution. And mother, the Pink Floyd song.

Twins play outside this pieza-stanza-room. There are voices which permeate it, but none of which I heed. What kind of a drug is this virtual wireless telephone? How long can you live without the telephone and the voice at the other end of the line.

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani? [Mark XV:34]. There is no answer. Merely the blank violence of the sun.[Nick Land]

The father cannot answer the telephone. His duty is to cut the umbilical cord.

Lamentations:

“When reality does not coincide with deeply held beliefs, human beings tend to phrase interpretations that force reality within the scope of these beliefs. They devise formulas to repress the unthinkable and to bring it back within the realm of accepted discourse.” Michel-Rolph Trouillot.

Trouillot outlines succinctly what being a reactionary is: desperately clinging to your ideological beliefs to make them re-act to the ever-more estranged reality around you; dealing “with the impossible only after the impossible had become fact”. On the contrary, being active is allowing your ideologies to think themselves through your actions; to think of yourself politically and philosophically as you are ‘taking place’, without demarcating ideological limits on yourself. To act is to be in a continual state of revolution. Thinking the impossible and making it a fact.

Don’t most (aging) Arab Leftists, who flaunt their nostalgia on twitter and Facebook suffer from this gross reactionism, thus disabling themselves from seeing the reality around them, dare I say, as it is? Perhaps it’s an effect of age to submit to the impossibility of the impossible. “Pessimism of the mind (intellect), optimism of the will.” Even Gramsci rings through their ears in reactionary terms. Their mind is old and their will has metamorphosed to the guilt of their past. Their tactical and strategic bellowing is instrumental for their fundamental mode of stasis. Their names now ring the death sound of their crackling jaws. If even Adonis, the poet of the phoenix and eternal return of the new, receded to a reactionary position…they’ve effected the same fate for the Arabic language; controlled for centuries by reductive fanatic clerics and decadent Arabic departments, who choke it, keep it mute and restrained. Instead of striving for the impossible in and through our language (and its unremitting poetics), it has been made to be subordinate to the utilitarian economy of usefulness, homogeneity and positivism. Free our language from your theatre of superiority; it is no coincidence that the self-same aging ‘left’ are the same people who meditate on the dismal state of our language in trite manners. There is no greater abjection than to submit to their ball-ankle word-vomit they call critique, it swells up and reproduces itself like capital in an infinity coterminous with our own dis-solution. Language debates lead us away from the matters at hand, and toward the idea in the head. All is matter! Never Mind! Open up the Quran, it’s not enough to read it. The words on the page mean much more than the words in your mouth; but essentially they testify to the humanity of the words enclosed in the book. There is nothing divine about the Quran. I hope it is understood how this is not blasphemy but an opportunity to save meaning (and non-meaning!) even as it occurs in a wrong inflection. The fate of a revolution is always with its youthful in spirit. Be young in spirit. Become wild at heart.

Typical Brooklyn Night – Redux:

I listened to discordant jazz music as disconcerting thoughts ran through my head. The trumpets blew loudly and the drummer was guilt heard through the throbbing of the heart in the chest. How should I force the thoughts out of my head? And a Cello rolled through the room-stanza-pieza as fine as mahogany can be. Hands played on it with such style, the body and the neck were dancing, wobbling, roaring with a depth of an ocean-graveyard of de-shipped slaves. The subdued erotic voice of a woman reverberated from its hollow body. This was a woman subdued by age and in lament. Midgets wore bat wings and veiled the light, changing its color from a bright yellow to that of a darkened Brooklyn sky. My thoughts hid behind the deep voice of the double bass. I trembled. The disparate notes assaulted my cognition like Israeli warplanes over Gaza. Life on a global level was troubling, and so are the thoughts that accompany it.

Sirens rang outside the room, overpowering the voice of my mother. Sirens and their temptations, mermaids immobile on the street, trapped on the cement. I look at them, still-life like leaves, the beautiful Brooklyn autumn effaces me. I try to help them, but the winds blow down from the sky, complete verticality. It is the time of the sovereign abortion. Acid rain and hurricanes. A mother shall never thank you; she needs not to. Mother’s weather is always temperate. A mother is also always a mother-to-be, to the hope of her sons and through the anticipation of her daughters.

And I understand why mothers feel this way. The call of the umbilical cord is always an emergency call, and it has come. The call of motherhood by the potential mother is directed not to me, but to the one to-be-born. She aborted me to keep what’s sacred safe.

…And this is self-abortion, my kicking inside the room-tomb-womb; everyday is a chance for it. Everyday I await the subway train, underground—its voice comes howling from the dark tunnel. It comes fast and I’m on the edge, its washes over me like a temperamental wave, holding me prisoner in its undertow as I’m still surprised by its speed. An attractive speed that reminds me that I’m not in Beirut, I’m beneath the sea, sous la mer/mère, winded by the umbilical cord that strangles me; and the subway is the reminder of my daily missed encounter if I were to be in be in Beirut. This missed encounter is death, but also a rebirth. This was my future and for now: “The rest is silence.” Bataille

Postscript:

Everything is political. The above signifies the time and weather of the maternal mother. Le Temps de la Mère. The schism of today enacts this and it seems to be the only way: the mother-to-be’s freedom from patriarchy takes this decision to the heart, nobly, masterly, for not wanting or even risking to live as a disappointed slave. Revolution demands to let go of love and lovers, answering the call of future generations. Revolution is inherently maternal. The uprising of women in the Arab world is part and parcel of any uprising wishing for a radical change in the status quo of patriarchy.

“The radical abortion of tragedy and irredeemable waste is Socratically sublimated into the service of the Idea, becoming a police function of theistic sociality, within a political economy of managed sperm.”

“In Nietzsche’s text abortion—in the loose sense Schopenhauer has opened—is both the possible outcome of procreative anarchy and that which characterizes a eugenic regime.” [Nick Land]

“Heterology is restricted to taking up again, consciously and resolutely, this terminal process which up until now has been seen as the abortion and the shame of human thought.” [Georges Bataille]

“O mother
farewell
with a long black shoe
farewell
with Communist Party and a broken stocking. .
with your sagging belly
with your fear of Hitler
with your mouth of bad short stories. . . .
with your belly of strikes and smokestacks
with your chin of Trotsky and the Spanish War
with your voice singing for the decaying overbroken workers. .
with your eyes
with your eyes of Russia
with your eyes of no money. . . .
with your eyes of starving India. . . .
with your eyes of Czechoslovakia attacked by robots. .
with your eyes being led away by policemen to an ambulance
with your eyes with the pancreas removed
with your eyes of appendix operation
with your eyes of abortion
with your eyes of ovaries removed
with your eyes of shock
with your eyes of lobotomy
with your eyes of divorce…” [Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish,” IV]

[post inspired by recent personal events, by the lectures of Avital Ronell at NYU, by the book The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Elissa Marder, and the ever-inspiring feminists of Lebanon and the Arab world]