And let’s not forget the Scandinavians:
Paulette and the task of post-colonial theory
Paulette and the task of post-colonial theory
When I was growing up in Lebanon, my father was a reasonably influential military/political figure. ‘Reasonably’ meant he was not influential enough to be elected to parliament and he was not a rich businessman, but he had enough clout and enough following to influence the economic and political fortunes of such people. As such members of parliament and ministers regularly came to our house. They needed my father to secure their power and my father needed them to secure his prestige. That’s how clientelism worked. My mother played an important but very traditional role in this process: her ‘table’ (the food she offered) was famous, and often people we met would directly tell her how much they yearned to be invited to lunch or dinner at her place. While my mother was indeed a mean cook, she nonetheless had a lot of help. My father benefited from what was called a military ‘ordonance’, basically a chauffeur and a gendarme, Hanna, who worked as a full time cook in our house. What’s more, for whatever reason, his wife also worked at our place. Her name was Raf’ah.
Raf’ah was mentioned as often as my mother when it came to cooking because of her kibbeh. She came from a village in northern Lebanon and did her kibbeh the traditional way: she put the meat, the herbs and the crushed wheat in a jeren (a special kibbeh mortar) flipping it with her hand and pounding it rhythmically with a wooden pestle. I loved Raf’ah who, beside cooking, often looked after me and my two sisters. I would often sit next to her when she was making kibbeh, and she always spoiled me by rolling a mouthful of kibbeh with her fingers when it was ready and putting it straight in my mouth. She spoke to me in French: ‘viens, viens ici, yaa habibeh’, ‘you are so handsome. If you were older you could have married my daughter Paulette’. I was six or seven at the time but she often would talk to me about Paulette… ‘Paulette est belle’, ‘Paulette est très jolie’.
It was not until a couple of years after I’ve known Hanna and Raf’ah that I met Paulette. My father was driving to see his brother who was a judge in Tripoli and it was decided we would give Raf’ah a lift to her village on the way there. My father sat in the front next to his military chauffeur and Raf’ah and I sat in the back. The first thing she said to me when we got into the car was, now you will see Paulette. And indeed, when we got to her house, she called for Paulette who dutifully showed up. I was stunned to see her. I was nine or ten and she was in her twenties. I thought she was incredibly beautiful. But she was strangely ‘western’ (today I would have used ‘White’): exceptionally white skin, blond hair and blue eyes. I did not dwell on her whiteness then though it certainly came to my consciousness as a mark of distinction. Two other things stood out from that first encounter. Paulette la très jolie had very sad eyes. And she also spoke French. She gave us a perfect: ‘Bonjour’. I still remember her ‘Bonjour’ and I still remember that even for me, a ten year old or so at the time, there was something not exactly right about how perfect this Bonjour was. French was well understood everywhere in Lebanon, and everyone around me said ‘Bonjour’, but how well one says ‘Bonjour’ (ie, how French you sounded) was a mark of class distinction.
I saw Paulette a few times after that. And every time I saw her I couldn’t take her out of my mind for many days after: her beauty, her whiteness and her sad eyes. When I was twelve or thirteen, my dad had retired, and Hanna and Raf’ah no longer worked for us, I heard my mum say that Paulette was marrying a lawyer from Zgharta, the main Christian town in North Lebanon, situated above Tripoli. The implication was she has married well. I remember my father saying: ‘well, she is beautiful, but this guy must love her since he didn’t care’. I also remember not understanding very well what my father was saying. I thought maybe he was referring to the fact that she was a lower-class girl.
I did not hear about Paulette for another four or five years. I was finishing high school and it was the year before the civil war started. I was home when I heard my Mum speaking on the phone, sounding very distraught, and saying ‘oh no’ ‘oh no’ ‘God give you patience Raf’ah’. When she put the phone down, she had tears in her eyes. I ask what was going on. She tells me: ‘Paulette entaharit’ (Paulette has committed suicide).
I stood there stunned by the news. And further stunned when she said with anger ‘her father that son of a dog (Ibn el Kalb) should have helped’. I had never heard Mum or Dad say anything bad about Hanna. We all loved him and had fond memories of him. And he was always perceived, and spoken about, kindly. So I couldn’t help but get upset and say: ‘Hanna?! Ibn el Kalb?’. Mum looked at me as if I should know something I didn’t: ‘No! Not Hanna! Hanna is not Paulette’s father. Can’t you see that her father is not Lebanese?’ Then she filled me in: her father is a retired French officer who continued to live in Lebanon after the French mandate forces left. Raf’ah says that he raped her, but, Mum added, ‘who knows? he might have seduced her and she might have fallen in love with him’. When Paulette was born she hoped for a while that the officer will marry her. Instead he left to live in Lyons and never came back. But he paid for Paulette’s schooling. Later he flew her to Lyons a couple of times but these ended in disaster according to Raf’ah’. Mum shook her head reflexively. ‘Poor Paulette,’ she said, ‘she was never a happy child. She carried a heavy burden’ ‘her beauty was her curse (haleha mseebeta).’
I was totally taken aback. I felt exceptionally naïve for not having thought at any point that Hanna was not Paulette’s father, something that seemed so obvious to me now that it has been brought into the open. At the same time, Paulette’s whiteness, her sad eyes, all the French spoken by Raf’ah and Paulette came back rushing through my head as well as my Dad saying that her husband ‘didn’t care’.
I had forgotten all about Paulette until a day, while researching for my PhD in the mid-1980s I came across a text by Michel Chiha, one of modern Lebanon’s ‘founding fathers’. Chiha, like many Christian Lebanese thinkers at that time engaged in considerable intellectual labour to prove that the Lebanese were ‘white people’ not ‘Arabs’. He clearly perceived the latter as a lesser/backward ‘race’. Here is from the article based on part of my thesis that I published later:
Like others before him, but more ‘scientifically’, Chiha moves to demonstrate the Lebanese link with the Phoenicians. As importantly, Chiha informs his audience, that the Phoenician alphabet is today used by ‘the quasi-totality of the white race’. ‘To which we belong’ he hastily adds (Chiha, 1984, p. 38). Reviewing the many people that had invaded Lebanon, he takes a special interest in reminding us that of the ‘thousands of Westerners who came from Europe, without forgetting the Scandinavians, many never went back’ (Chiha, 1984, p. 32). He goes through considerable pain to show that after those Westerners many other non-Arab people came and stayed. The ‘racial proof’ that the Lebanese are not Arabs accumulates... To end with, Chiha injects into the Lebanese more of his favourite sperms: ‘And let us remember a fact that we cannot neglect. Only in the last twenty-five years, the mixed marriages between Lebanese and Westerners have produced thousands of children...’ (Chiha, 1984, p. 34).
I thought of Paulette immediately when I read this sentence. It was characteristic of the Christians of Lebanon, and particularly the Maronites, to always want to see Western-Lebanese colonial relations in a good light. Colonialism is often imagined within anti-colonial thought, metaphorically and not so metaphorically, as a process of rape. But too often, with the usage of the imaginary of rape, comes an expectation that the only way of thinking it is outrage. While some colonised people joined the colonisers in imagining, at least at the metaphorical level, that what took place was nothing like rape, others were able to think that being colonially raped included the acquisition of something positive, so one should try and not dwell on the rape itself but on what resulted from it. The Maronites were not alone in thinking this way. But it must be said that they excelled at it. Even when joining the struggle for independence against the French mandate, they managed to do so by saying that it was important for the French to leave in order to maintain the love that the Lebanese felt towards them.
It came to me that in the very fact of celebrating how ‘très jolie’ Paulette was, people, including Raf’ah, her mum, were not only participating in the process of uncritically valorizing western beauty, they were also willing to turn the blind eye as to how this beauty was acquired. In her hope that he would end up elevating their sexual encounter to an all-encompassing relationship, in calling her daughter ‘Paulette’, in her continual usage of the French language, and the way she celebrated her beauty, in all this Raf’ah was acting in a quintessentially Maronite way, willing to make the best out of, both her colonial impregnation and its outcome. This is not to diminish the dimension of the process in which she is also a victim of the colonial process.
Seen through the eyes of Paulette, however, this drama has a very different, and as it turns out, unbearable dimension. As the child of an, actual or metaphorical, colonial rape she was an inheritor of a whiteness that was valorised by all those around her. Paulette was also made to further augment the value of her whiteness through the perfection of the French language, as a sign of paternal identification (or perhaps a hope for paternal identification). As such, and at one level, her colonial/paternal inheritance was a form of cultural capital that she, or her family, were able to deploy, to engage in strategies of upward social mobility. And yet, and here I can only guess, the very value of her inheritance had also an excruciating dimension that was hard for her to live with. The very value of her inheritance was a reminder of the horrendous way she had inherited it.
Paulette’s story offers a further critique of those facile attempts at revalorizing colonial history by producing lists of benefits (such as economic, medical and educational) that have supposedly come from the introduction of capitalist modernity into the colonial realm. It is well established that those attempts happily forget all what colonialism has taken away from the colonies and from the colonised. It is also well established that such attempts uncritically accept the positive nature of the modern colonial inheritance. Paulette’s fate highlights the way, this logic of listing benefits falsely separates what colonialism has bequeathed the colonised from how it has bequeathed it. An anthropology of colonial inheritance as an extension of the anthropology of the gift takes us precisely into the subtle effects of this ‘how’.
More importantly perhaps, the above is an invitation to think the difficulty the colonised have negotiating their colonial inheritance. This is true of even the most anti-colonial among them. Establishing the way colonialism imposes and valorises and makes the colonised inherit certain languages, ways of being and ways of thinking is easier than negotiating a way of living with such an inheritance. This is especially so when the inheritance itself shapes the very tools we have in our possession to negotiate it. Even the most post-colonial of theories, that creatively and powerfully showed the way the colonised can subvert their inheritance in the process of inheriting it, such as Homi Bhaba’s conceptualisation of mimicry, owe more to a colonial inheritance than they sometimes wish to delve into. This has had a lasting effect in the field of post-colonial academic writing.
Faced with the inability to eliminate and transcend such contradictions, certain de-colonial critiques are increasingly taking an absolutist turn. They aim for a ‘decolonisation of everything’ in ways that are motivated by fantasies of cleansing (one’s self, one’s culture and one’s territory from the effects of colonialism). And yet, there is something profoundly colonial and modern in these fantasies of cleansing. Indeed, I would say that the very nature of such absolutist de-colonial critiques, fails even more so than those before them to free themselves from what they are critiquing. To me the story of Paulette takes us in an opposite direction. I think of her tragedy as grounded in the difficulty of the colonised to live their colonial inheritance as both a privilege and a burden at the same time. And when I think of the contribution of thought to a post-colonial future, I think of a theory that can precisely confront the difficult task of finding how to negotiate and best inhabit such an inevitably contradictory reality, rather than fantasise about its elimination.
 This text benefited from a number of excellent editorial questions and suggestions by Carol Que.
 Ghassan Hage, Maronite White Self-Racialisation as Identity fetishism: Capitalism and the experience of colonial whiteness, in Karim Murji and John Solomos (eds), Racialization: studies in theory and practice, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005