Monday, July 12, 2021

At the Scene of the Migratory Crime

Soon the world will note that a year has passed since the Beirut port explosion. People will not fail to note how this destructive murderous explosion was born out of gross governmental negligence. So gross and diffused that, in the best tradition of gross and diffused Lebanese governmental negligence, it becomes impossible to legally pin it on a particular person or group or government that can be held responsible. But everyone knows that they are ‘all’ responsible. For as the revolutionary slogan pointing at the Lebanese politico-economic ruling elite during the 2019 October uprising went: kellun ye’neh kellun (all of them means all of them).


I am seriously dreading the approaching date of the actual explosion and I have been wondering why I am dreading it so much. There is no doubt that I am first and most obviously dreading it because it will bring back the memory of the death and destruction it has caused. I am also dreading being subjected to an endless stream of videos of the explosion. I find those videos traumatic and traumatising when shown in a purely exhibitionist manner. News networks will argue that they are providing their viewers with what is purported to be newsworthy ‘historical footage’. But even when this is true, the footage is never handled with the necessary care, and I cannot help feeling that many actually have shown it and watched it, and will show it and watch it again, with a pleasure akin to the enjoyment of snuff films. There should be a better awareness of what those videos entail to a substantial number of (Lebanese and non-Lebanese) viewers who share my sensibility. 


But upsetting as these videos and films are and will be, I have come to know, on further reflection, that they are not the only or even the major source of my dread. After all I left Lebanon in 1976, in the early stages of the civil war and I have a long history of coping with being subjected to the media running clips of Lebanon violently self-immolating and disintegrating as a form of infotainment. The main source of my dread lies elsewhere. It’s been there for a long time, at the same time plainly and manifestly present and yet very well-hidden from me. 


Since the explosion, Lebanon has been slowly transforming into a living hell for so many. And for those of us connected to what is going on there, we are continuously reading on social media accounts of how people are coping. I hear from my colleagues and friends in Beirut about their experiences of economic and governmental collapse, as well as their accounts of the experiences of others economically less fortunate than they are, and I can see them defining and redefining before my very eyes the boundaries between the bearable and the unbearable life. It is here that I slowly and clearly became aware of something I should have always been aware of: of all the accounts of poverty and misery nothing affects me like hearing someone describing how unbearable life has become such that they want to leave the country or that they are actually leaving, or indeed that they have actually left. Yes, I am actually triggered by stories of people emigrating. They trigger me in that they revive in me that injury I experienced when Lebanon expelled me from its entrails. 


I have written about this injury of ‘belonging to a country that cannot keep its children’ (if this link doesn't work google this title). But, strangely, I only just started to come to terms with how deeply affected I have been by this injury myself and how central it is to my make up. When I look back, I think that, surely, I should have been so much more aware of this. I have confronted it on so many occasions in myself and in the many people I worked with when doing my research on the Lebanese diasporic condition. Perhaps because I managed to repress it precisely by making it always there, present and visible. For, banalizing the presence of something can indeed be a mode of repressing its centrality.


All this became obvious very recently when reading a wonderful text by Farrah Berrou (if this link doesn't work, see her piece Across the Rickety Bridge on her blog Bambi's Soapbox), written in a very evocative and affecting manner, describing her feelings as she settles in L.A. after leaving Lebanon. She tagged me as she quotes from my above-mentioned piece. As I was reading her and getting upset thinking “here goes another Lebanese expelled from the country”, it dawned on me that being upset about someone leaving Lebanon contradicts something I have almost celebrated in my recent work on the Lebanese diaspora, The Diasporic Condition. Indeed, I have just finished a whole book arguing that Diasporic culture was the very culture of Lebanese modernity. That the Lebanese, even in Lebanon should not be always conceived of in migratory terms as ‘here or there’, or ‘neither here nor there’ or ‘in between’. Rather, I argue that there is also a way of seeing them as being simultaneously here and there, with an emphasis on the ‘and’. It is this here-and-thereness that I define in the book as the ‘lenticular condition.’ So, how can I celebrate this being here-and-thereness and at the same time be so upset that someone is leaving Lebanon. It dawned on me that maybe this whole argument in the book was driven unconsciously by the trauma of my own diasporic injury, and of finding ways of alleviating it. It was some revelation. Luckily, I don’t see affectively influenced social scientific writing as bad social science, or it would have been a disaster to have to come to terms with all this a couple of months before the book is out! With Nietzsche (in The Genealogy of Morals) I believe in the importance of those “active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something”. Perhaps if I was finishing my book today, I would have highlighted this in my introduction. 


But, to go back where I started, there was another important thing that I also became conscious of while reading Farrah’s text. Her piece allowed me to see how my dread of this migratory injury was connected to my dread of the explosion. For if it is true that Lebanon cannot keep its children it is also true that it has ejected them in very different circumstances and very different ways depending on the times and on where they come from geographically and socio-economically. Some were pushed out gently into the world, some were coerced, some were seduced, some were driven harshly as war refugees and everything in between. In the way it has occurred in a country ruled by a particularly ravenous and venomous ruling class, an assemblage of competing economico-confessional hyenas, that has impoverished the country morally and economically beyond anything seen before, and in the way the shattered glass, that came to metonymically symbolise it, blended with and materialised the shattered dreams of its inhabitants, the explosion initiated a particularly ferocious migratory cycle. It worked as a centrifugal force in a cruel and brutal fashion. It neither coaxed people into leaving nor did it just coerce them. It actually spat them out. This is where, to me at least, the explosion has come to mark something diasporically traumatic, along with the other traumas it has initiated. I have come to see it as that very act of spitting.  And it has spat people out of the country in what is perhaps one of the worst migratory times possible. A time where the hospitability of the host countries, which has never been so great, is at its vilest. At its worst, and as it is for many refugees in the world today, the migratory experience consists of this: being spat out by your own country to be spat at by your host country.

While clearly not all migrations are like this, no migration is free from this macabre dimension. Particularly in such an environment, an inability to stop undesired migration is a governmental failure. In a country like Lebanon, it is a form of neglect that is in continuity with the neglect that was behind the explosion. To make things even worse, in Lebanon, and elsewhere, there is a certain similarity between the way a country treats those departing emigrants leaving because they have to and the way it treats soldiers departing for war. The emigrant who does not desire to go, like the soldier going to war, is not particularly at ease with leaving. In all likelihood, s/he is scared of what is expected of him or her, s/he is scared of what will become of him or her, and s/he prefers to stay. But the public governmental discourse constructs them both as heroes to be celebrated, depriving them of a public space to voice their fears and anxieties and the undesirability of what they are about to engage in. Even today, Lebanese radio abounds with songs celebrating migration as a kind of national achievement and a form of heroism. More than ever, it is necessary to undermine those celebratory practices and tear down the constructed social stages where this dark comedy is allowed to take place. It is important to create instead a space where the fears, anxieties and refusals associated with forced departures, and that are voiced privately, can be voiced publicly. In so doing, we pave the way for those ‘neglectfully’ responsible for these forced migrations, all of them (kellun), to come to publicly face the traumatic effect of their neglect.





  1. ... spat out or shat out?

    Is it too late to add a postscript to the Diasporic Condition? this would be a great draft!

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