The tiles on the floor look particularly dirty today, their neo-Levantine motif smeared with the remnants of rain and mud from a particularly gloomy fall day. The uncomfortable orange plastic of my chair is as unwelcoming as the neon glow that fills the room, and it squirms and squeaks under my considerable weight. I’m sitting at the end of the third row, away from the window, like I always do. The light that hasn’t been fixed since last semester flickers reassuringly above me. It’s dark outside. Who takes a class this late on a Thursday, I ask myself.
I look around the room. I don’t really recognize anyone, and since I basically reside on the pigeon shit-covered ledge by Nicely Hall, that must mean they’re all from lower campus or just people I haven’t bothered meeting yet. I see some bags under a group of eyes, and decide that they must all be graphic design students. They must have drawn a map to get up here. Not because they needed it, but because they thought it would be cool to spend an overnight doing it. They think this class will be an easy grade, a foray into the petty world of the upper campus, full of lazy politics and sociology students like myself. They’re probably wrong.
The cheap clock above the cheap blackboard says it’s 7:10pm. Where is this guy? The self-important bozo next to me starts huffing and puffing audibly. He’s obviously far too important to be here at this hour, professorless. Then, amidst the idle chatter and checking of phones, someone finally walks in.
He doesn’t seem to notice us, rushes furtively to his desk and places a tattered brown bag on the chair behind it. He turns around swiftly, his diminutive frame comical in the large and cold classroom. His helmet of white hair remains motionless as he tilts his head forward to peer at us over his tiny oval glasses. He smiles, starts talking in bursts of excited, lucid and fascinating sentences. And we’re all hooked for the semester to come.
The man at the front of the class in the mustard-coloured corduroy blazer with the giant intellect is Samir Khalaf, and my lengthy and rather pointless introduction takes place in the AUB classroom where I had the pleasure of meeting him 10 years ago. A lot has changed in those ten years, and Khalaf addresses these changes deftly in a new book, Lebanon Adrift: From Battleground to Playground. It’s a terribly important book that deserves to be read but, since it’s dense and academic, most of you won’t. So here are the Cliff Notes.
Khalaf has studied Lebanese society closely over his long and illustrious career, which can’t be an easy task for anyone. His books should be gathering dust on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about Beirut. This new work is no different. It is undoubtedly scholarly, and the lengthy references to Emile Durkheim and Zygmunt Bauman will put off the casual reader. But then again, most people tend to be put off by a guy called Zygmunt. Beyond the academic stuff, this is also a text that is impassioned and personal, in a way academic books aren’t usually. It’s like you’re getting to glimpse into the personal feelings of someone worn by years of looking at a doomed country. There is an anger in Khalaf’s tone, a sense of exasperation. Even though he remains hopeful throughout, it feels like forced hope. Much like the forced and delusional hope many of us cling to in order to preserve a similitude of sanity in this city.
Khalaf’s premise is that Lebanon is a nation adrift, “because it has lost its moorings and direction, [and] has also lost control.” The most interesting chapter in my opinion discusses consumerism in a traumatized society. He applies Drukheim’s concept of anomie, the predicament of seeking without fulfilment, to Lebanon (don’t worry this will get interesting). He is puzzled by the fact that, rather than adhere to the ‘normal’ post-war curbing of frivolous impulse, the Lebanese have “discovered insatiable desires for extravagant consumerism, acquisitiveness and longing for immoderate forms of leisure and sterile recreation.” A worrying sentence if ever I saw one. Lebanon today is basically a reckless twentysomething who, following the loss of a loved one, has gone on a complete self-destructive bender. He’s spending on things he doesn’t need, his breath smells of increasingly cheap whisky and he hangs around bars at closing time at 3am because he doesn’t want to face the solitude of his apartment. He’s not a pretty sight.
So, Lebanon’s anomie is manifested mainly by the rampant desire to accumulate goods, in the face of which the Lebanese have stopped at nothing, desecrating and pillaging their own country. This is evident in everything from the gutting of our architectural heritage to the dumping of chemicals into rivers. In Durkheim’s theory of anomie there is a “social state in which a society’s norms can no longer impose effective control over people’s impulses.” And that’s where we are today. With no norms, and by consequence no normality. Faced with a stagnant real economy and few prospects, the deprived and not-so-deprived imagine that any means are legitimate and justified to obtain their desires and wants, however non-essential and capricious. Greed and corruption have become the norm, rather than exceptional and reprehensible characteristics at the outskirts of society. As Khalaf quite rightly points out “ the exorbitant prices one pays cannot be a result of natural inflationary market tendencies; they reflect the extortion and heavy extractions that agents and self-appointed guardians, patrons and middlemen impose.” To put that in blunter terms, we’ve turned into a nation where everyone is ripping everyone else off. We’re turning to the shadowy and morally ambiguous regions of the human experience, and we’re not thinking twice about it. He goes on to cite the litany of realities we begrudgingly accept. The three-fold increase in the price of petrol and gas over a few years, the exorbitant price of real estate, the list goes on and we’re all too familiar with it.
He decries the lack of ambition, and the abhorrence the average Lebanese person holds for manual work. Cafes are full at all times of the day with able-bodied individuals “squandering precious time in idle chatter” and smoking. Even the smoking itself is seen as an act of social aggression. Smoking bans have proven impossibly difficult to introduce, let alone enforce. The callous disregard for the feelings of others when one lights up is a symptom, much like aggressive driving and a general lack of common courtesy, of a country still at war with itself.
Some criticism of Khalaf’s book has centred on the fact that it absolves politicians of any responsibility because it doesn’t focus on them. Quite the contrary, I think it should be commended for laying the blame squarely with the population. People get the leaders they deserve, especially in what passes for a democracy. The culture of defeat and victimization, which we’re all guilty of, is starting to sound rather lamentable, especially in the face of the brave revolutions taking place across the Arab world. Blaming politicians for everything absolves the individual from any responsibility for his reckless actions, of which there are many. The relationship is symbiotic. If a guy wants to build an illegal extension to his house and bribes his cousin-fourth-removed who works for the municipality, who’s at fault? A politician? It’s time to stop the delusion.
Another criticism is that Khalaf focuses essentially on the affluent middle-classes. Perhaps. But what’s wrong with that? The dominant national narrative, as expressed in the popular local and foreign media, is the one that Khalaf is addressing. Much like anywhere else, this is the class that has access to the means of cultural production and consumption. Basically, they’re the idiots you see on TV, so they’re bound to dictate how we see ourselves, and how others see us.
The book does feel disjointed at times, but that may just be because I haven’t picked up anything remotely academic since my Master’s in politics. But there is another reason for what may occasionally seem like rambling thoughts. It is a highly personal book. It is infused with genuine frustration and even possibly anger. If you’re looking for a dispassionate analysis of the state of Lebanon today, this is not it. There are value judgements, which are occasionally very un-academic. And those are probably my favourite parts.
Which brings me to why this book is so damn satisfying. It is a relief to see that someone who has been studying the place for so many years, as a leading and respected sociologist and academic, has examined the issues we discuss on a daily basis with our friends. It is comforting and enlightening to see it put into a functional theoretical context, rather than the jumble of disjointed and abortive demands and complaints we make. But that is also what is most worrying about the book. The realization, the well-researched and argumented realization, that the last 10 years or so have been so destructive. They have been destructive without the visible manifestation of 10 years of all-out war. The destruction has been insidious and progressive and has eaten up at the soul of our country.
I came away from this book feeling numb and powerless. The task ahead, that of putting Lebanon back on the right course, seems so impossible it’s paralyzing. The numbness provoked by everything discussed in this book is the same numbness that stops us from taking any action about the things that frustrate us daily. The same numbness that leads us to accept all these foibles individually, without looking at the disastrous bigger picture. It’s the numbness that makes us shrug when an old building is torn down to make place for a painfully gleaming tower, and say “what can I do?”
The Lebanon that I lived in 10 years ago, when I was in that classroom waiting for Khalaf to show up, that was a different place. It was imperfect and damaged and chaotic. Almost beautifully so. It had an excuse for being damaged, it was still finding itself. It was far from being a utopia. So much of what is wrong today was wrong back then, but that was 10 years ago. The fact that what we are today is the result of what we chose to do over the last 10 years is a sad realization. I’m not one for nostalgia, but sometimes I wish we could all be back in that class a decade ago. We were all a bit more hopeful, and a bit less numb.
Lebanon Adrift: From Battleground to Playground is available at good bookstores. And probably some bad ones.