The Derivative is a bi-annual online publication launched in October 2020, in the midst of unprecedented political, social, economic, and environmental collapse in Lebanon. It is an attempt at building collective vocabularies, registers, and practices able to account for and run against the systemic onslaught we are faced with.

The Derivative is a student of the uprising of Oct 17, 2019; it is first and foremost a rhizomatic object around which to mobilize a diversity of praxes. Experimenting with collective editorial models, each issue is above all an excuse to think and make together and a way to expand and strengthen networks of friends and allies through divergent modes of address, thought, and action.

Every issue of The Derivative starts with three guest editors, each assigned a theme in the form of a three-letter root word (جذر) in Arabic. Each editor then collaborates with five contributors to help unfold the various facets of each theme, as well as an artist contribution responding to each text.

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness - For Tarek El-Ariss

Ali Cherri, from the "Dead Inside" series, watercolor. 2021

Farther from the Desolation of the Wilderness

No one knows of whom Isaiah spoke in his prophecy. Isaiah said that it was coming, that voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” But Isaiah, like all of the Old Testament prophets, named no names.

Some of the Apocryphal Gospels, those that have been discredited by the Church, claim that it was Yohanna—John the Baptist—who wandered in the desert, clad in camel’s hair and subsisting on locusts and wild honey, straightening the highways of the Lord God and crying for the people to prepare His way. These Gospels say that Yohanna was surprised to see Jesus of Nazareth with a group of his followers on the bank of the river, asking to be baptized; for Yohanna believed that he himself was the expected Messiah. When Yohanna baptized the people so that they would repent of their sins, he baptized the Nazarene without hesitation and without objection. If he had believed that the Nazarene was the Messiah, he would have considered him sinless, needing neither baptism nor penitence.       

When his elderly mother became pregnant with the voice (the cry itself), the good news of this numinous pregnancy was foretold to Zakariya his father by the angel Gabriel, just as he brought to Maryam the good news of another numinous, miraculous pregnancy, out of which would be born the child who would bring salvation to the world. The two births occurred barely six months apart. As a result of how these two stories were enfolded together, Yohanna came to believe that he was the Messiah. While he was languishing in prison, he entrusted two of his disciples with carrying a message to the Nazarene, asking him if he had forgotten him in the darkness of Herod’s jail, and asking him: “Lo, are you truly the Messiah? You have lifted the yoke of tyranny from all people, so why do you not lift it from me? Am I not your relative, the son of Elsabet? The dearest of all people to you, as you have been preaching?”

We do not know what answers were given to these questions that the two disciples put to the Messiah. According to the Gospel of Luke, he gave no clear answer at all, responding with deeds and miracles rather than with words!

The story of Yohanna’s life would end with his severed head proffered on a platter, the price of that infamous dance of seduction from the hips of the teenage Salome. As for his body, it was cast into the desert, and it fell to his disciples to raise it up and bury it. These were the same disciples who would go on to announce to the Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and who would follow him as believers and evangelists. But a few years later, the “Baptists” would proclaim that Yohanna was the Messiah, saying that when he died before the Nazarene, the latter took advantage of his death to proselytize about the Kingdom of the Lord whom he called “Father.” One faction of these, known as the “Mandaeans,” went so far as to consider the Nazarene an enemy of John the Baptist.

The artists who decorated the churches and cathedrals of Europe were fond of John the Baptist. However, none of them made him blond as they did with the Nazarene—although they knew well what the people of Palestine looked like—so that he would appear more like them. I mean that none of them made Yohanna one of their own kin. He remained true to the place where he was born and where he lived; meanwhile, his father Zakariya was depicted receiving the heavenly tidings in Turkish dress. Among the great masters, only Leonardo da Vinci complemented John’s serene features with curly (if carefully coiffed) hair. In the portrait he smiles coyly, pointing toward the heavens with a feminine hand, not crying out, no wilderness in sight. The story’s other characters are not there. His head rests softly on his neck; his shoulder is bare. Whereas Caravaggio leaves the severed head with its mouth half open in speech, in an aborted cry, and with eyes downcast as though averted from the light, submitting to the affirmed might of its Power.

The location of Yohanna’s grave remains uncertain. Maybe it is in Judea, maybe Samaria. No one knows if there is a tomb at which his cry might still be heard, ringing out loud enough to rend the veils of the night.

At the heart of this story, which was intended as a guide to mankind and an exemplar of justice on Earth, there is ambiguity. Perhaps the elderly Elsabet died before her son was killed. If she had been alive still, she would perhaps have gone to Maryam, her relative and the mother of the other one. Or perhaps she did not do this and instead stayed at home, thinking and telling herself that she had not warned her son adequately about the lonely life of a prophet, and that perhaps he had not needed to cry out thus in the wild places until he became that “voice crying in the wilderness.”

The wilderness is not what is most wanton, oh Yohanna.

***

In Yusuf’s Well

Yusuf, like Musa, was a son of Yaqub. Between the desert and the water, each one has a story.

Musa raged against his people and shunned them when he discovered that they had broken with him and his message, there in the desert, and turned to worshipping the golden calf. Musa complained to the Lord of what his people had done, crying to Him that they did not want to follow him or go with him to the Promised Land. Then they said that they did not want to fight those who dwelled on that green patch of earth. They said to Musa, “Go and fight them by yourself. We will stay here.” So Musa asked the Lord, “How can I do this alone?” And so came the judgment sentencing them to forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert, where Musa died without ever seeing the Promised Land. Perhaps Musa did not understand how He who had parted the sea so that he and his people could escape Pharaoh would not heed his appeal, or how He who had charged the waters of the river to ferry him, an infant in a vessel of straw, to Pharaoh’s house, would now forsake him, abandoning him to the loneliness of the desert as retribution for the calf. Would that he could reverse the Lord’s sentencing of him—he who had committed no crime—to the desert, to this ultimate punishment.

Yusuf’s brothers led him into the desert. And in the desert they were beset by thoughts of wicked envy, and they conspired against him and cast him into a well. Yusuf’s brothers did not kill him, nor did the loneliness of the well. Perhaps moisture or water in the bottom of that well slaked his savage thirst and made him forget his brothers’ hatred for him. It is the brothers’ hatred that is the desert, not its fiery sands. Or it may have been that Yusuf beheld once again, from that well bottom, eleven stars and the sun and the moon prostrating themselves before him, and forgot his brothers. To forget injury is a blessing, yet it is a blessing that does not endure and may indeed be transmuted into a lethal poison. Who is more capable of forgetting? The powerful or the weak?

The many faces of evil resemble each other, and in this—in the very normalcy of evil—it becomes familiar to us, a thing of fluid borders with which we consort warmly and willingly. Its multiplicity is a kind of blessing. But Yusuf was beautiful, inexperienced in evil’s plenitude. Raised above it and thus exposed to harm. He must have been aware of his beauty, made proud and haughty by it. To the extent that his father favored him publicly over all his brothers. The self knows that such perfect beauty poses a threat to everything and everyone who lacks it. Did Yusuf reflect upon his situation while he was in that well, where loneliness was as a rope to wisdom? Did understanding his brothers’ envy make him inclined to forgive them? Did Yusuf grow up enough in that well to be magnanimous toward his brothers? Or was it his tremendous strength that enabled him to give them what they asked for from the ruler of Egypt, so as to be done with his brothers and consign them to oblivion?

Is there, in forgetfulness itself, first and foremost a hope for an escape from the wilderness? We never hear about the iniquitous brothers being brought to account for their great crime. Did Yusuf forgive them for their own sake, out of love for them and out of the largesse of his soul? Or did he forgive them to forget them, to turn the page on that relationship, to get out of the well and out of the wilderness?

***

The Voice Becomes Beastly

After reaching puberty, a man may forget when it was that the child’s voice within him died. He bids it farewell, sometimes with a touch of sorrow and sometimes not, and it is never to return.

It is like when the voice changes under the tyranny of male hormones, fleeing from the higher registers into the desert, the savage world of adults. Into the desert. Now the young man has no choice but to become a monster among monsters, a beast among beasts. This is what he learns as he prepares to grow up. Yet at the same time, as he also learns, he must promulgate ideas of justice and mercy and defend the rights of the weak.

He must forget the first half of his life. He must agree to say goodbye to the child so that he can attain the strength of a wolf, so that the wolves will not eat him, and so that he can be a vessel for mercy and for notions of righteousness and justice that wolves do not have. In other words: the wolf that howls out his hunger alone in the night must refashion his howls into the bleating of a ewe.

The roar of the lioness changes, turning low and soft, when she chases the ingenuous cub from her side, from her teats and from her protection. He has been tested and he does not need his mother anymore. She does the same if she sees that her cub is hurt and smells upon him the scent of imminent death. The mighty lioness does this for the sake of her other cubs who are healthy, and even his pitiful whimpers will not make her relent. She will not lick his wounds, nor will she go to him to nurse him, no matter how much he begs.

How can we recognize that it is far from easy to have one’s throat suited equally to mewling or roaring?

We are a sentimental people that prefers elegiac fables of weeping over the ruins to the crudeness of reality, and our stories are not like the stories of other peoples. In the fairytales of the Germans or the Celts, for example, the story often starts with the parents’ abandoning their children and driving them into the forest. Either because of poverty, as in the stories “Little Thumb” and “Hansel and Gretel,” or because of a father or an aunt’s predilection to mistreat the child or even sin against her: the father who wants to marry his daughter in the story “Donkey Skin,” among others. In these stories the shortcomings of the adult parents constitute an initiation to the cruel possibilities of the world, as though they were a prelude to the blows that are almost certain to lie ahead. Thus the children in the story go forth into the forest alone, exposed to the lurking beast before they confront it head-on. It is a kind of training for what comes next. I do not believe that we have anything like it in the stories that emerge from the worlds of The Thousand and One Nights or the Sirat Bani Hilal epic, for these are fundamentally stories for grown-ups.

***

How do we get out of the well to rejoin our brothers? How do we get from Yohanna’s head to the authorized Gospels? From the hunted animal to the predatory beast? From the desert to the humane oases rippling with greenery?

By forgetting?

Forgetting is not enough. We must go beyond forgetting, to writing. Writing for rapprochement, and for reconciliation and restitution. We must write—that is, we must invent and create anew a consummate world. And then employ all of our mental tools to believe in that world, and to come together, all of us, far from the forlorn places of our solitude, becoming familiar to each other in the proximity of our bodies and our illusions, so that we can save ourselves from the desolation of the desert.

It is as though the killer’s father were pressing his case for justice, and the father of the one killed were calling for the same justice, side by side and with one voice, from the podium of a single hatred. And for the sake of this we will come together, cohering into the eternal form of a single nation. From the mountains to the coast, on land and sea.

The land is a wasteland and a wilderness. It is that which ends at the verge of the water and summons the sea with all its might. Like the sea of Beirut that exploded and became a desert. A deserted sea. Yet it is not allowed to die, in spite of the bodies that have accumulated in its depths. Hope remains because we will it to. Look at the greenness of the wheat sprouting from the bags of nitrate.

As if the poets and singers were all mass-producing the same anthem, in which to love one’s country is to refuse to allow it to die, or to keep doubting that it is dead no matter how often it dies. If we refuse to admit that the city is dead, our consciousnesses will be relieved of any responsibility for its murder. Sated on Turkish TV serials and the miracles of the saints, we must be innocent if we are to bear together the cruelty of life. We are proven innocent when we wail for those who have been killed while also demanding rights and justice for their killers. Our innocence requires us to pen compositions of bereavement to kill the death that kills us yet again.

Death is forbidden, because if we let the country die we would have to search high and low for ways to bring it back to life, and we do not have the energy for this. We are not allowed to despair but must be hopeful. In hospitals they refer to this as the dead clinging to life, not yet trusting themselves to summon the angel of death. This is the height of cruelty.

The victims were still pinned beneath the rubble during their final moments of dwindling awareness. They could hear voices around them shouting at them to get up. To get up. As if it were in their power to do so. As if they were guilty of their own deaths, as if they had killed themselves. Guilty of leaving us alone with our grief. Guilty of causing us a loss that could not be borne. Thus hope appears as a retribution and a repudiation.

On the battlefields, once the fighting had ended, there would be a bugler. It did not matter if he was from the winning or losing side, one of the victors or the vanquished. In either case he would remain on the scene till the end, bugling a sad tune to mourn the slain of both armies and to send off the wounded left to their impending deaths. Perhaps to inform them of this death and ready them for it. The bereaved women would wait until after the ceremonies to prepare the bodies had been completed, when the dead lay shrouded upon beds or pallets, to commence their crying, their weeping, and their funeral hymns. We do not do that. We have no bugler and no dirges. There is no portal between life and the hereafter through which we pass, for we have sealed it shut with what we call hope—hope for hope’s sake, that we might remain hopeful. We place our hope in a mirage, and we hope that it is durable. We hope for the marvel of water in the desert.

We have escaped into writing. In writing we are unsurpassed by any other people on Earth. Straightaway we write, writing from within the void and writing the void, writing about its soul and writing its soul. Despite our difficult circumstances we have entrusted ourselves with rewriting the Psalms of David one by one, rehabilitating them in poetry and prose, songs and art, drawing upon entirely new data. Get up. Get up lest we look again. Get up so that we can return to our hate and our wars. Now!

The star television reporter was overcome with emotion as he said to the woman whose son they had killed: “But really by now, déjà, you must have realized that justice is but an abstract concept, an absolute value. It is like truth, a thing of the gods. We are only human. So,here is a piece of white paper. Once an issue becomes the subject of a petition it will not die. Write and raise up your rightful petition to the heavens. So, petition the heavens themselves. Cry in the wilderness and the heavens will hear you. Who else do you have but the heavens?”

Oh those heavens where we have been compelled to live out our exile. The cruelest of deserts, the most distant wilderness. A guillotine of holiness and destiny at once. A roof for one who has no house, a “final” answer to every kind of question.

In Beirut, this desert of land and sea, the air is putrid with romance. She has been afflicted with a scourge of terribly facile rhymes: Beirut ma betmoot, Beirut el-buyoot, et cetera, et cetera, anything that rhymes with oooot. Beirut won’t die; Beirut is its buildings. We cannot bear silence even symbolically, even a single minute of it. To be silent is to stand alone amid a great emptiness. And empty spaces invite contemplation. In this the prophets are our example, journeying itinerant and solitary in the desert.

The prophets, our intercessors, watched from the orphic deserts as the Lord in His wrath sent down calamities and plagues upon us so that we might be admonished. Living beings began to cry out amid the suffocating crowds, Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me, you’re always touching me. The wolf said, Leave me just a small square area the size of a notebook where I can howl a little before the moon. But we were not admonished. The wolf came down into cities emptied by plague, and paced through the galleries of the department stores and beneath the neon billboards advertising events long since passed. But we were not admonished. We began to weep as bereaved mothers do and say, Touch me. Please touch me. For I am alone and innocent and I have not the strength anymore to become beastly like a werewolf. I have not drunk from the water where the werewolf’s claws have soaked, I have not slept under the light of the full moon, and I did everything the old priests told me to. Take pity on me, oh wolf, my brother.

From now on we will turn to Facebook. We have thousands of friends standing between us and our loneliness.

Take me to your page. Add me to the numberless masses. You do not know me. I do not know you but we will help each other. Free me from my infinite desert, and let us cry together in the wilderness. Together.

Look what has become of us, oh Isaiah!


Translation: Anna Ziajka Stanton

Understanding the Void of a Historical Pit

Qalaq

Beast (و.ح.ش)

“How well can we ever know people who have lived through civil wars? How much can we ever really know about the violence and destruction, the losses, the devastation? The overpowering fear they must feel every day? Can we ever really understand how they are transformed, which things change inside them, and which things harden? In the last quarter of one’s life, when death becomes something intensely near and possible, the heart is no longer anything more than a useful pump. Warm blood rushes into our organs only in order to flee once again. There’s no other reason, just flight.”

— Hoda Barakat, Voices of the Lost.[1]

In Voices of the Lost, Hoda Barakat puts in question literature’s ability to construct a coherent narrative, to tell a story, and to capture historical experience. Composed of six letters that never reach their addressees, Barakat’s novel unfolds across broken landscapes and broken selves. Yet the author finds a way to salvage this brokenness and provide it with a refuge in cruelty and hardening – internal processes that alter the human and suppress its needs in order to keep it alive. What is left of those who experienced wars and violence then, is but a “useful pump” that could stop functioning at any moment. 

The mechanical state of immunity against pain and madness that Barakat describes so well allowed, especially the Lebanese, to survive despite material devastation and internal collapse. Living in liminal spaces, both in Lebanon and abroad, these war survivors have transformed and hardened, forfeiting their right to the past in order to enter a future that flashes like a messianic sign. In doing so, they managed to contain their brokenness by maintaining the basic function of the machine, pumping and circulating fluids to the various organs. But given the recent events that befell Lebanon and other countries in the region, from political and economic collapse to wars, pandemics, and explosions, the functioning of this machine is once again in jeopardy.

When the Beirut port exploded on August 4, 2020, images of black smoke billowing over the site resembled that of a beast wahsh readying to devour the city, to take it into its belly once and for all. Soon after, demands for retribution emerged and expressed with the slogan: “We will not hold you accountable; we shall get our revenge!” This slogan marked a significant departure from the calls for democracy and transparency that were uttered when the Lebanese took to the street to topple the ruling class starting in October 2019. The call for revenge announced the emergence of a subject who has encountered the beast and can no longer be deceived by the liberal shimmers of government reform. The call for revenge echoed a beastly encounter that brought an end to the post-war era wherein savagery was contained. The call for revenge is thus a call to devour that which had devoured the people and their city, stripping them of their defense mechanisms and survival tools. Like a culminating act in an epic of savagery, the explosion ushered in a new stage of beastliness affecting the human condition and requiring new modes of confrontation. For this, we need to turn to history and language, excavating genealogies and taxonomies of the beast with which we are forced to contend.

In the Arabic language, the derivative w-h-sh offers a productive entry point to reflect on the current state of social and political transformation in Lebanon and in the region. Wahsh which is commonly translated as beast, monster, or savage, emerges from a state of wihsha, a forlornness or beastliness, characterized by the withdrawal of the human (ins).[2] This quality of wihsha is tied to desolate places like sites of ruins or the wilderness, places which enable the process of tawahhush, namely the transformation of the human into wahsh, bringing about wildness, loneliness, beastliness, and savagery. The mutawahhish (one who is wild, beastly, savage) is thus the one who has broken with the human community as the matrix of identity, to become something other, permanently altered. Tawahhush as a becoming and potentiality has been theorized, by thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Achille Mbembe, as that which upends humanist conceptions of community. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, tawahhush designates a literary tradition and a model of confrontation that challenges the human as a social and psychological entity.[3]

Arabic culture has provided us with multiple glimpses into tawahhush as well. From the condition of Majnun, represented in miniatures surrounded by the animals, to that of the sa‘alik (sing. su‘luk, brigand poets) dying of hunger in the wilderness of pre-Islamic Arabia, tawahhush points to a condition and a genre. It is a mix of anger and pain that wants to destroy it all, and in the process, destroy the self. The mutawahhish is often the villain clamoring for revenge, a cannibal wanting to eat those that ate it. As he is expelled from the tribe and pushed into the wilderness, the pre-Islamic poet al-Shanfara swears to take revenge by killing 100 of his kinsmen. His tawahhush is staged in Lamiyyat al-‘Arab (Arabian Ode in L), wherein he becomes gripped by a physical transformation that eventually brings him to the point of disintegration. In the Lamiyyat, the process of tawahhush takes place in the body, in the guts, as the su‘luk’s entrails twist and turn. Hunger, exclusion from the community, and tribal violence frame his tawahhush and vengeful return both as an assassin and as a poet, denouncing the violence and injustice to which he was subjected. Poetry, death, and a new consciousness emerge from this process, ushering in a political and poetic project that strips the human of its heart and its blood, with no possibility of salvation or redemption. A tabula rasa that is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

The Lebanese Civil War, with its violence and forced exile, pushed authors and artists like Hoda Barakat into the spaces of wihsha or beastly wilderness that al-Shanfara also occupied.[4] This literary wihsha emerges from the process of being with oneself, of living in the text, of breaking with the tribe. And as they write and create, these authors and artists are forced to bear this violence and reconcile with the fact that it turned them into refugees abroad, in their own homelands and in their own bodies. In this state of wihsha, writing becomes the stage that conjures the wahsh, and proceeds to slay it over and over again. But it is to no avail. The wahsh holds the mirror to the self as well; it enters it and shapes its consciousness like Gregor Samsa who turned into and started thinking like a giant bug in Frantz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. How do we defeat the beasts and monsters that we have also become?

As the wars and conflicts in the region have intensified, they have turned tawahhush into the default state of being. It is no exaggeration to say that we have entered the stage of tawahhush, which regardless of how manageable it may be, exceeds the violence and cruelty of any bloodthirsty project.[5] The wahsh moved from the outside to the inside to live permanently in the entrails, to haunt them and never let go. This wahsh has also taken hold of our most intimate spaces, entered our beds, and become our lover. It took the shape of tablets and screens that connect us to the image and voice of the other and to a sense of home, so close yet completely unattainable. Like the handmaiden of catastrophe, closures and confinements have exacerbated the carnival of tawahhush, pushing us further into solitary caves and halls of mirrors.

The altered humans that we have become have to confront the wahsh both inside and outside by learning from the sa‘alik and other hardened tricksters. We need to confront the wahsh that has moved from the no-man’s-land of Civil War-era downtown Beirut and other war zones in the region, to live deep inside of us, in our entrails, pushing us and our cities further into the wilderness and beyond the sea. The sa‘alik were experts in this game, performing and tricking the monsters of pre-Islamic Arabia, such as the ghoul. I have called on those authors and artists who were exiled into wihsha, who have long lived with the beast and understood its language, to ask them to expose the beast’s violence and its effects on the body and consciousness. I have summoned them here to confront the wahsh as we can no longer defer, as Shahrazad did, the executioner’s blade at dawn. The contributors that I have called upon are brigand-poets, hackers, and outlaws in their own right. They too have broken with the tribe and denigrated it long ago. They have gone on stage, performed, and confronted beastliness, over and over again, from Beirut and Cairo to Paris and Berlin. They have been invited to give account of the beast, to reveal it through their work, to make it speak its name and avenge us all.

I have turned to Hoda Barakat, asking her to speak her tawahhush once more. In the wilderness of faith and disbelief, she will account for the breaking point of language in its primordial moment of constitution. Hamed Sinno enacts that bodily tawahhush that comes out of his guts, his entrails; that takes hold of his face, his voice; and that makes him unrecognizable as he arrives safely in the unpromised land. Ahmed Naji reports live from the belly of the beast, the factory of wuhush (beasts), narrating the history and analyzing the dreams of the monstrous machine. Iman Mersal retraces the footsteps of al-Tahtawi in Marseilles, seeking to make sense of his fragmentation 200 years later. Al-Tahtawi’s breakdown, that inaugurated Arab modernity, reduced the body to a pile of bones in need of management. Rabih Mroue rummages through these bones and excavates the dead in his own body, now an anonymous tomb. Mroue seeks to expose that absolute erasure when human life loses all bearings. These five contributors conjure up the beast in and through their texts, confront its violence in all its forms.


[1]Hoda Barakat, Voices of the Lost (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), pp. 175-6.

[2]Ibn Manzur, “W-h-sh,” in Lisan al-ʿArab, ed. ʿAli Shirri, 18 vols. (Beirut: Dar Ihyaʾ al-Turath al-ʿArabi, 1988), 15–16; 168–170.

[3]Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-OEudipe: capitalisme et schizophrénie (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972) and Achille Mbembe, Brutalisme (Paris: Editions la Découverte, 2020).

[4]Tarek El-Ariss, “Return of the Beast: From Pre-Islamic Ode to Contemporary Novel.” Journal of Arabic Literature(2016), 47.1-2: 62-90.

[5]The reference here is to Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 jihadist manifesto Idarat al-Tawahhush (Management of Savagery) that spells out the political strategy of radical Islamist groups.

Rubble (ر.د.م)

Backfilling (Radm) as a Process of Rewriting History

[Burying – backfilling – obliterating – erasing – blinding – silencing]

A farmer once recounted to  me that the word “kfar”, found in the names of many villages (such as KfarKila, KfarNabrakh, and others), stems from the belief that the act of planting seeds is blasphemous (kufr): when the peasant sows, s/he “backfills” the grain in soil. Although sowing is a life-creating process, as the grain produces other grains, the initial burial of the seed kills it before enabling it to give life. Though the farmer’s anecdote is likely not true, given that most etymological sources agree that the word “kfar” comes from the Aramaic word for farm, It does however, get at our core premise: the notion of backfilling, not as an act of creation, but as a process of killing, obliterating, burying, and forgetting. 

Backfilling is the act of refilling a site with rubble. In Arabic, the same root word radm can designate rubble when used as a noun or backfilling when conjugated as a verb. But what are the multiple connotations of radm (backfilling) as a double entendre? How do we choose to backfill some things and leave others, and what happens when one backfills? 

To speak of backfilling is to address a historical act, which is to say, a process that aims to change a historical narrative beyond its current value, to historicize it differently through collective memory, urban planning, and spatial transformation. In our own text and throughout the subsequent five contributions, radm is a material process aimed at erasing the other’s history, narrative, self, and place. Three recurring questions structured our conversations with the invited contributors: what do we backfill, with what, and why?

What is backfilled in the Lebanese reality begins with our cities, villages, valleys, and sea; and moves to our history, collective memory, and daily lives, with the intention to create privatized spaces for a real estate market able to compete with major cities in the region. Women, the missing of the war, refugees, and migrant workers are backfilled, as is the rubble of the pain and trauma of the disasters we experience. War crimes, their history and memory, their location and language are backfilled, along with their resulting devastation. Low income neighborhoods are backfilled, along with the history and the daily lives that inhabit them. Everything that is deemed unproductive and useless is backfilled, like those who have lost a leg, hand, or eye in the war. Political deals and agreements are swept under the rug, and suppressed is the right of people to decide upon the fate of their cities, regions, and history —which is to say their right to choose what they want to backfill and what they want to hold onto. Finally, what is repressed is what is not to be heard, seen, known, or felt. From this standpoint backfilling is an anti-archiving process, a false historiography. Those in positions of power backfill to protect themselves from what could hurt them: their memories, the crimes they committed, the victims of these crimes and any proof of their occurrence. They backfill what they deem shameful, so as  to remain in power. They backfill evidence of a truth different than the one they desire,  so as to open a path to absolute truths.

Through these varying acts of backfilling and the motivations that engender them, we will tend to three ideas: the backfilling of narrative, shame as a cause of backfilling, and backfilling as a mechanism for communal conspiracy. These three ideas explore the relationship between the city, its people; and the political, economic, social, and spatial implications of the process of radm or backfilling.

Backfilling Narrative and Space

Hegemonic power backfills the people and their city, to conceal its own history and hide the traces of its actions. While we do not see backfilling as the only way to hide the past, silence people, or control a narrative, it is certainly one of the more powerful mechanisms to achieve those goals, particularly through the instrumentalization of planning and reconstruction projects.

Within the practice of backfilling space and narrative, we can observe three kinds of operations that have occurred and continue to take place since the beginning of the Civil War: first is the process of dumping domestic and toxic waste throughout the mountainous regions of Lebanon – a practice which constitutes a huge source of income for the country’s warlords.[1] The second is the process of seaside land reclamation using the remains of the destroyed and burnt city.[2] These two cases are directly related to capital accumulation, as backfilling becomes a quasi-renewable source of profit in the hands of the dominant class who concocted a way to produce prime real estate for free.[3] These two processes converge with a third kind of burial, an emotional backfilling of the missing, the wounded, and victims of the war and the possibility of socio-political reckoning with the memories and narratives of the War.[4]

Seen in this way, burying rubble is a silencing mechanism which aims to enforce amnesia by concealing marginalized groups in the dark corners of collective history, so as to allow for the production of an immaculate and singular historical narrative. Through this kind of backfilling, untold narratives remain suppressed and hushed, buried under layers of silence, fear, and intimidation, not unlike a mass grave. What is not narrated, however, does not disappear. Rather, it swells inside the hole it has been forced into until the day it must resurface. The backfilling of these various forms of collective memory is a suppression of a diversity of narratives pertaining to women, refugees, urban and rural poor, and displaced communities who have spent a lifetime in Beirut but will always be perceived by the state as parasites invading the capital from the periphery.[5] In this regard, this actnot only operates at the level of the content of these narratives, but also changes their language and signifiers.

We can analyze the workings of the dominant class through Jacques Lacan’s work: the hegemon as Big Other, writes history and decides upon the language with which we might rationalize it, narrate it, and redact it. The Big Other tells us what of this history is to be buried and what is to be kept alive. He tells us that the Civil War is to be referred to as a series of “events” (ahdath, a word used by the majority of Lebanese to refer to the Civil War), that we should not talk about it, that we should continue our lives as if it did not happen, that the missing disappeared and that we are not to look for them, and that the city we live in is the best of what we deserve.

Beyond narrative and language; the sea, the defunct railway path, the old city, and its ruins are also backfilled; not to mention refugee camps, poor urban neighborhoods, and sites where massacres occurred. In other words, what is being backfilled is a collective identity carried in space.[6] And since this common space has been destroyed, the weight of memory becomes heavier on us than the obliterated act.[7] Through the act of radm, feelings transform into spatial phenomena: grief, shame, guilt, oppression, and injustice are reflected in space, embedded, encoded, and encrypted in it. These feelings are experienced in space, they sculpt and shape the confronted, imagined, and represented relationships that inhabit it[8]. These backfilled places become part of the geography of guilt and shame, resulting from our desire to completely remove them from our memory – a desire shared by the dominant class and we as a people, defeated or otherwise.  

Backfilling shame

Shame is simultaneously the result of backfilling andits very cause. In his text on the theory of sexuality, Sigmund Freud links shame to an act that requires repression: what was once a source of pleasure now brings shame and must therefore be suppressed. The war itself and its battles and massacres, which were once a source of joy, pride, and glory for party leaders became a source of post-war embarrassment. In a television interview, Walid Jumblatt admitted to the massacres committed by his political party during the War. In a speech about his political foes, the Lebanese Forces, in a tone that betrayed a sense of shame for his actions, Jumblatt claimed “they invaded and we invaded”.[9] Subsequently rejecting any admission of wrongdoing and sense of shame, he posed the question: “Who said that there are clean wars and unclean wars?” Feeling fragile and exposed by the scandal, the hegemon could not allow himself to appear vulnerable .

From the memory of the Civil War to the built reality of the city, the dominant class’s crime is inscribed in our history through the very projects of the ruling elite. Backfilling therefore becomes necessary, not only to conceal crimes they committed, but also as a mechanism for future amnesty. In Lacanian terms, backfilling is comparable to the Totem and Taboo: in order to remain in power in the aftermath of its crime, and permanently secure its position, the dominant class must conceal its actions.[10] Concealing the truth in this way takes on added importance, as the initial crime would have been in vain if left exposed. The visibility of the crime would debilitatethe dominant class and hinder its power. Backfilling is therefore intrinsically linked to the consolidationof power in the hands of the dominant class.

The Linord project north of Beirut, the Landfill north of Bourj Hammoud, the Beirut landfill, which became the “Biel” project, the Costa Brava landfill, Naameh and Sidon, all started as bad solutions to long-time problems. But these kinds of projects would become very convenient solutions to generate capital for the dominant class, and shielding them —along with their histories—from public debate became essential for the perpetuation of the authority of the warlords.[11] This sort of repression is evidentin the Lebanese media for instance, especially in talk shows and political discussion programs which continue to build collective amnesia through the creation of a parallel reality seemingly unaware of the Civil War and its consequences.[12]

In his research on the backfilling operations in Beirut, Eric Verdeil advances the relationship between money and power, explaining how political economy constitutes an essential entry point for understanding the reality of backfills in Lebanon.  He writes that the cost of stabilizing and reinforcing the “Biel” backfill to make it resistant to tsunamis, amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars paid by the Lebanese state to the sole benefit of Solidere—given that the area became the company’s property at no cost.[13] There is little doubt then, that backfilling is a source of income financing the dominant class’s grip on power.

Backfilling as a Collective Conspiracy

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story about a fictional city, Omelas, begins with a detailed description of its early summer festival.[14] The beautiful city, as colorful and wide, as open and spacious as its myriad public spaces, would receive waves of women and men of all ages and trades. Even the snow-covered mountains that surrounded the city would be visible on that dazzling summer morning. Little by little, the signs of an ideal city emerge before readers’eyes, with pagesdescribing in detail the emotions, situations, and the kinds of things that one may come across in Omelas. After Le Guin builds up in the reader the desire to pack up to leave for Omelas, she reveals that under the most exquisite building in the entire city, in a room without windows, lies a child. A girl or boy, aged six or ten, lives in a small room filled with his/her own feces.No one visits him/her except to give him/her food. Children look at him/her, inspecting him/her with disgust. 

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. They all know that it has to be there. They all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Omelas parents begin explaining this issue to their children from as early as the age of eight. Children go through the phases of trauma, rejecting the situation at first, and seeking to help him/her. But taking out this child to the sun, cleaning it, giving it warm clothes, feeding it and patting it on the shoulder, would be enough to destroy the lives and happiness of the people of the city. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” 

Then something momentous begins to happen, writes Le Guin, every once in a while after visiting the child, a girl or a boy would disappear. They would not return home; simply leaving the city and never returning. “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”    

The premise of Le Guin’s short story resembles the collective shame we bear in the face of the Civil War, of the killing, the backfilling of the sea, and the resulting devastation. Like a collective conspiracy of sorts, what has happened since the end of the war is similar to what Le Guin described. A collective denial of the suffering of a minority, and a heavy silence that envelops the missing, the families of victims, those who suffered loss of rights and land… to preserve the comfort of the majority.  

The war on the Nahr al-Bared campis a case in point. Fourteen years on, after fifteen weeks of battles, 47 civilians killed, the near complete destruction of the camp, the displacement of more than 30,000 of its residents, and the complicated status of their return resulting from delays in the reconstructionprocess; the crimes of Nahr al-Bared remain completely forgotten and the suffering of its people silenced. The Nahr al-Bared war has all but disappeared from the media and political discourse.

Writing on the siege of Nahr al-Bared camp, Samer Abboud recounts the uprooting of residents and the long-term impact caused by the war, the loss of housing, and entire neighborhoods of the camp.[15] Experiences that have been omitted from the tragic narratives of suffering endured by the peoples of the region as a whole. In this sense, the Nahr al-Bared war never happened, and its victims are nonexistent. The collectivememory has excluded this event from its historiographyso that the majority of the population maylive without guilt, without questioning the reasons behind this war, or the disproportionate actions of the Lebanese Army, in their complete annihilation of the camp for the sake of hunting down handfuls of armed men.

We have worked in this issue on approaching “backfilling” from a variety of angles, each enriching our conception of backfilling as a political, socio-economic, and spatial process. In addition to it being a historical tool used to erase, silence, obscure, conceal, obliterate and sacrifice many communities in exchange for the happiness of one; it remains a means to accumulate profit for the few at the expense of the majority, as capitalist law dictates. 

The issue unfolds across five articles. First, Karim Sadek writes about backfilling from a philosophical standpoint, proposing to end the ongoing radm of our history. Then, Leila El-Sayed Hussein writes about backfilling the layers of the city, while Eric Verdeil presents a paper on the backfilling undertaken by political parties in rural and urban parts of Lebanon. Our fourth contributor, Dalia Al-Khamisy, shares her experience as a photographer working with the families of missing persons in Lebanon. Our final contributor Thurayya Zreik provides an anthropological and psychological reading of the consequences of backfilling on the most marginalized groups.

In our region where people die, crushed day after day, under mundane or acute layers of disenfranchisement, impoverishment, deprivation, amnesia, and silence; it is imperative that we understandbackfilling as an erasure of our extended selves across space, narrative, history, and language. Between the moment of the event and the present, between sea and city, there are spaces that we have the right to discover and come to know. Backfilling such spaces is designed to prevent communities from knowing of them and making use of them. In this denial lies some deceitfulness and a profound injustice.

Jana Nakhal of Public works

Translation: Alia Al Rosan – Haig Aivazian – Lori Kharpoutlian


[1]https://legal-agenda.com/%D9%82%D8%B6%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%80-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%B2%D8%A1-%D8%A7/

[2]Haugbolle, S. (2011). The historiography and the memory of the Lebanese civil war. Online encyclopedia of mass violence, 5. https://www.lahlebanon.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/The-historiography-and-the-memory-of-the-Lebanese-civil-war.pdf

[3]Verdeil, É. (2017). Des déchets aux remblais: imaginaire aménageur, corruption et dérèglements métaboliques à Beyrouth.

[4]Jaquemet, I. (2009). Fighting amnesia: Ways to uncover the truth about Lebanon’s missing. International Journal of Transitional Justice, 3(1), 69-90. http://www.actforthedisappeared.com/sites/default/files/Resource%20Documents/Fighting%20Amnesia.pdf

[5]Larkin, C. (2010). Beyond the war? The Lebanese postmemory experience. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 615-635. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Craig_Larkin/publication/231962595_Beyond_the_War_The_Lebanese_Postmemory_Experience/links/571a3c5a08ae408367bc8652/Beyond-the-War-The-Lebanese-Postmemory-Experience.pdf

[6]Haugbolle, S. (2005). Public and Private Memory of the Lebanese Civil War. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East25 (1), 191-203.

[7]Vanolo, A. (2020). Shame, Guilt, and the Production of Urban Space. Progress in Human Geography, 0309132520942304.

[8]Vanolo, A. (2020). Shame, Guilt, and the Production of Urban Space. Progress in Human Geography, 0309132520942304.

[9]For more details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9x2LjKYKKEE

[10]Building on the Freudian story of the Totem, Jacques Lacan proposes a reading of the relationship to the father, where the patriarch – holder of power and property, including land and women- is killed by the sons, for them to have access to power and property. but in order for them to create the perfect murder, they eat the father, so that first his power runs through them, and that their crime is equally distributed amongst each and every one of them, thus making sure the crime will be kept a secret. In this story, the guilt of the crime is shared, and so is hiding it. 

[11]For more details on such projects in Lebanon: https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/33377/Garbage-Politics

[12]Dib, A. (2019). The Un (Civil) War: Media Framing and Memory Construction in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon (Doctoral dissertation), pp. 36-44.     

[13]Verdeil, É. (2017). Des déchets aux remblais: imaginaire aménageur, corruption et dérèglements métaboliques à Beyrouth.

[14]Le Guin, Ursula K. “The ones who walk away from Omelas.” Evil and the hiddenness of God (1973): 23-26

[15]Abboud, S. (2009). The Seige of Nahr Al-Bared and the Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Arab Studies Quarterly, 31-48.     

Disquiet (ق.ل.ق)

Unraveling: Act I (SCENE BREAKDOWN)

[BLACK SCREEN: VOICE-OVER]

I don’t question the originality of the invitation’s conceit and the thrill of being invited to contribute; however, when the email from Ahmad and Haig assigning the word “qalaq” to my contribution arrived, I nearly screamed with rage.

It landed in my inbox during the Second Confinement – I use capital letters to periodize the experience with the pandemic. In the framework of this extended present tumbling in an unsettling circular temporality, it felt and seemed impossible to think critically, meaningfully, poetically about a notion or sentiment that pervaded my conscious and subconscious, that corroded, bedeviled, and overcast the hours – just as it was impossible to guess what the months ahead promised, a Third Confinement, or the relief of worldwide vaccinations. As if the two dear friends were asking me to deconstruct the monster as it held me in its grips and was about to devour me. 

I was incapable of declining the invitation; it was, after all, a distraction, perhaps a fugue, from the grim imperium of isolation. 

Gradually, the idea of wrestling with the monster became tempting. Threading words, images, allegories began to feel like pinning down, tracing contours, taming… the high-grade anxiety double-bill of the SARS COVID-19 worldwide pandemic and the collapse of the Lebanese postwar covenant. 

The taming proved a wild ride – words did not fail me, but smithing sentences and paragraphs did. 

Locked in the double bill of anguish, I was speaking in tongues, undecipherable, nonsensical to those who were not tapped into the reality of Lebanon’s collapse and the collapsological discourse of European theorists whose voices were piercing mainstream left media.

I took cue from the most renowned astrologer in the Lebanese mediascape. While he receives visions, which he describes as tableaux, my text below is organized in vignettes, or scenes of a script that is coming undone. The order of this script keeps reshuffling, alternating its ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ in a desperate attempt to narrate the double unraveling that I am witnessing, enduring, and embattled with.

[SCENE 24: BEIRUT. INTERIOR (MORNING). PACKING SUITCASE]

In times of high-grade anxiety, times of intense disquiet, of gnawing worriment (what is the correct English word for qalaq?) everything becomes amplified to the register of the irrational. The crackle of furniture sounds suspiciously like an attempted break-in; the grumble of a car tearing the eerie silence of the COVID-locked-down night sounds ominously like a low-flying Israeli drone. In times of high-grade anxiety, every insignificant incident feels like a sign. A light bulb suddenly blowing up into smithereens signals impending catastrophe; a hummingbird landing on the branch of the bougainvillea tree ushers impending felicity. Metaphors and allegories distend their evocative prowess and billow more frequently when interpreting events, engaging with the Real, answering phone calls, writing emails, deciphering the news – fact from fake from delusion. 

[SCENE 3: BERLIN. EXTERIOR STREET CORNER, WAITING IN A CUE TO ENTER THE SUPERMARKET]

This script was written and ceaselessly come undone between Beirut and Berlin. At the intuitive level, the high-grade anxiety refers to living in Beirut, but I carry it with me, within the interstices of the hours of everyday life in Berlin. When did life in Beirut move from low-grade anxiety to a higher level of anxiety? The question is superfluous; it does not really matter when the devolution began. The point is that time has begun to move in the pattern of the figure eight, or the sign for infinity, or a pretzel. Desperate for reassurance, I keep telling myself (and others) that it shall pass, like so many other terrifying chapters before. But the mere evocation of these other chapters only resurrects their specters. The devaluation of the Lebanese Lira in the 1980s, for instance, is not quite the same as the one taking place since the beginning of 2020. The pit in which the country has fallen this time is deeper. Or does it only feel like that because it’s the second time I experience it in my lifetime? Some of the political protagonists of the country’s persistent dismemberment and further bloodletting in the 1980s are still around, albeit performing – nominally – different roles. Notably different is the one playing the role of the head of the Central Bank. While Edmond Naïm undertook extraordinarily dramatic measures to protect what seemed to be the only remaining pillar of the Lebanese state (and the five billion in reserves in 1987); in contrast, Riad Salameh’s actions are more akin to those of a sleaze. Salameh’s neoliberal savoir faire has included bartering the national treasury to benefit sectarian warlords and guileful bankers and smoothing the passage to the impunity provided by offshore fiscal shelters. What has not changed is how society, or the different communities that make up this republic’s people, has and continues to be, in effect, collateral damage. Can collateral damage become a political category? How unknowing have we been, were we, are we?

[SCENE 1: BEIRUT. INTERIOR APARTMENT (AFTERNOON)]

August 9th or 10th, 2020 (I don’t recall the exact date). A few days after the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut, a television news report follows the establishment of a military hospital to provide immediate relief to victims of the blast. It was donated by the Moroccan kingdom and set up somewhere between the areas of Bourj Hammoud and Naba‘a. The ticker tape identifies the location as Tel el-Zaatar, a location erased from the geography of the city in 1977. The journalist speaking into the microphone was not born when the refugee camp was held under siege and razed to the ground, but the specters resurrected by the mere appearance of the name choked me.

[SCENE 18: BEIRUT. INTERIOR APARTMENT. BALCONY]

Winter this year bears all the signs of global warming. It is January, but the sun is shining brightly in the sky; the temperatures are mild; the plants on the balcony of my apartment are blooming as if springtime were already here. For a few days now, at about 9:00 am, a tiny bird with a thin long curved beak, black plumage that reflects blue in the sun, sits on one of the winding branches of the bougainvillea and starts to sing wildly. I was sitting at the dining room table (my makeshift office desk), staring without moving lest a brusk gesture might shoo it away. Within a few minutes, another bird of the same family joined; the two engaged in some sort of a conversation for a few minutes and then flew away together. From the extremely rapid flapping of their tiny wings, and after some research, I figured out that my visitors were hummingbirds though I had never seen hummingbirds in Beirut. Throughout that month, save for the spare days of rain, the hummingbirds came every morning almost as if on schedule, and I began to wake up early so as not to miss their visit.

I came to believe that they were not visiting for the flowers but for me. I came to believe that they were, in fact, the incarnation of friends I had lost because of burst arteries, virulent cancer, or car bombs. I came to believe they were Samir (Kassir), Omar (Amiralay), Jytte (Jensen), Eqbal (Ahmad). 

[SCENE 14: BERLIN. INTERIOR APARTMENT, DAYBREAK WINTER LIGHT STREAMING FROM WINDOW]

In the winter light of daybreak in Berlin, on the dining room table (my makeshift desk office), Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet lies waiting to be reopened, promising the relief of profound insight – the possibility that I might discover that the disquiet Pessoa transcribed (which has amplified into anguish in my here and now) might actually be a mint of the twentieth century, the legacies of which might be ending now. Modernity and modernization – theory, dogma, ideology, and policy – are existentially intertwined with disquiet. Disquiet –Pessoa’s, Munch’s, Hikmet’s and so many others’– which, at the turn of the century, was the discernment of poets, became reified after the Second World War as generative fuel, ersatz for creativity. In the right doses, it was deemed to produce beauty; in excess doses, it produced monstrosity – xenophobia, internment camps, identity politics.

[SCENE 18: BEIRUT. EXTERIOR ABDEL-AZIZ STREET]

Daydreaming while walking. We, the Lebanese, had it coming. We knew the big bang was coming, that the system was unsustainable, that the political class was not perennial, although they were grooming sons and sons-in-law. Was I complicit in the survival of the regime? Undeniably. 

We, the entire population of this planet, had the pandemic coming as well. The culture of narcissistic indifference that neoliberal ideology celebrates does not empower survival. We should have taken the previous outbreaks of the SARS, MERZ, and Ebola epidemics more seriously, just as we should have considered the child soldiers enlisted in the militia wars of the Congo, Central Africa, and elsewhere as our own and the deforestation of the Amazon as the deforestation of our own land. They all touched us, affected our lives irrevocably, and amounted to the tragedies that torment our humanity and planet. In keeping the wheels of global commerce running, I was complicit too, undeniably.

[SCENE 25: BEIRUT. INTERIOR BYBLOS BANK SITTING ON A BENCH WAITING FOR TELLER]

Prior to ATM cards becoming commonplace, I always scheduled trips to the bank on weekdays at hours when it was unlikely to find a crowd because I wanted to avoid discussing my erratic financial status (the wages of being a freelancer) within an earshot of others. Bank tellers, especially those I had become familiar with and whose disposition allowed playful ‘motherly’ rebuke, displayed no inhibition making remarks about my accounts being in the red or suddenly bloated from a hefty wire transfer. In the aftermath of the devaluation of the Lebanese Lira and of the COVID outbreak, going to the bank transformed into an entirely different experience. The tellers were the frontline enforcers of the perfidy. All signs of affability, familiarity, and compassion vanished. Supervisors ambulating on the floor made sure to inhibit them. And the customers became potentially dangerous, capable of uncontrollable outbursts from frustration with the ever-changing punitive measures against depositors. Security guards were posted inside the buildings, armed with thermometers and frowns to protect the bank’s staff from customers.

Capitalist forms of production and social relations wield anxiety. For Marxists and theorists from various colorations of the Left, it is the vital and dynamic yield that coheres the social order, shapes subjectivity, molds status, and compels submission. From the Fordist production line worker, alienated from the commodity or object s/he manufactures, to the working and middle classes of slipping into further debt, of losing social status, anxiety is the anesthetic that pervades the folds and wrinkles of social and political life, displacing time. 

[SCENE 27: BERLIN. DAY (SPRING LIGHT). INTERIOR DINING ROOM]

I belong to the community of people on this planet that believes that the SARS COVID-19 pandemic is the outcome of the entrenchment of the different stages of neoliberal capitalism across the world, along with the triumph of anthropocene ideology that it deploys. Our present calamity is the consequence of globalizing production under the aegis of a deregulated market and the value system that every government in the world seems to have elected to defend. It is the consequence of sustained prevailing systemic contempt for the welfare of non-human living forms and ecosystems, the disinvestment in public services (such as healthcare), disregard for damage to the environment, indifference to staggering social and economic inequities, and scorn for the basic fundamentals that foster collectivity and solidarity. On the upside, the pandemic provided the unimaginable experience of what would happen if economic production and commerce regressed to the supply of basic essentials –the very anti-thesis of neoliberal capitalism.

The prevailing discord in the aftermath of the emergency is one of perception; one camp sees the pandemic as the manifestation of a glitch, while the other camp sees it as the drastic failure of system that has become untenable. Those who propone the “glitch” view aspire to return to the so-called “normal” after the vaccinations have reached the level to ensure herd immunity. That camp concedes that some corrective measures might prove beneficial in the meantime; to alleviate the sharp reductions in all economic indicators (productivity, gross domestic product, growth), most governments have injected wide-scale pseudo-Keynesian stimuli. But far from heralding a return to the so-called welfare state, these policies are intended to save neo-liberal capitalism from a predicament it has produced in the first place. At the threshold of a system falling apart, those who defend it are out of ideas, out of solutions, and out of breath. To them, the pandemic is dystopia, but what they call progress, growth, and prosperity broke people’s backs and damaged the natural environment shared with other species.

I belong to the opposing camp and see in the trials of the pandemic a rare opportunity to shift from an economic ethos predicated on growth to an ethos of sustainable degrowth, equitable redistribution wealth, repair, reversal (if possible) of the damage to the environment, and, most crucially, an empowerment of the common and reshaping of the body politic. New subjectivities have to be forged, and this is essentially where art, poetry, performance, music, and film can contribute. If the legacies and memory of the Spanish flu have been erased, we can simply look back at the HIV pandemic to evaluate the role of the arts in leading the charge to destigmatize social, political, and psychological perceptions that shrouded carriers of the virus.

[SCENE 32: BERLIN. DAWN (WINTER). INTERIOR DINING ROOM]

Dare I think that our time has come? Our? Yes, we, who are living with plundered public services; without health insurance or pension; broken by loans; risking unemployment, eviction, bankruptcy, discrimination; chronically sickened by pollution and by genetically modified over-processed foods; and thirsty for water, clean, and plastic-free water. To borrow another notion from clinical psychology, the pandemic and the various lockdowns, in spite of their anguished and hefty burdens on most working and unemployed folks, have felt like a “lucid interval”, a momentary lapse of unreason, a confrontation with the Real of neoliberal capital. When and how will the passage to act manifest itself?

Getting our Pants Hemmed (On Poiesis and Praxis)

In the prologue to his book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, British critic Al Alvarez, relays one of the conversations he had with Sylvia Plath about an early version of Lady Lazarus -written shortly before the poet took her own life in 1963.  “I was appalled,” he says about listening to her reading. “At first hearing, the things seemed to be not so much poetry as assault and battery.” He quotes from the poem: “Gentlemen, ladies / These are my hands / My knees. / I may be skin and bone, I may be Japanese.”[1] Taken aback by the last verse, Alvarez asks, “Why Japanese? Do you just need the rhyme? Or are you trying to hitch an easy lift by dragging in the atomic victims?” He suggests to Plath that she “play it cool” if she is “going to use this kind of violent material. . .” 

The poem would only be published posthumously, sans the offending reference to Japan. But Alvarez would regret the omission, writing that on second thought, Plath “did need the rhyme; the tone is quite controlled enough to support the apparently not quite relevant allusion.” He admits that he had overreacted “to the initial brutality of the verse without understanding its weird elegance.”[2]

More than fifty years later, in a conversation between Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman, the pair anchored their own practices within a long literary lineage of a “radical transdisciplinary intellectual tradition” undergirded by an enduring history of unspeakable brutality. Hartman alluded to an “incommensurability between an available, critical vocabulary and that which we are trying to describe.” “You are saying these things using a given language,” responded Moten, “but I know you’re talking about something else, that’s in some other language.”[3]

Running through both of these conversations is a linguistic restlessness: the idea that we use the words, letters, sounds, modes of address, concepts, histories, images, methodologies at our disposal with the knowledge that perhaps they are, as Moten put it, “inoperative.” Foucault claimed that this sort of “endless striving” was ontological to language and its originary encounter with death. At the edge of death, he claimed, language turns back upon itself, “mirror[ing] itself to infinity.” Creating a virtual model of itself, “speech discovers the endless resourcefulness of its own image.”[4] Poetry might inhabit some kind of privileged site on the outskirts of this resourcefulness; indeed, Alvarez believed that a good verse has the potential to make us experience things “on the edge of disintegration and breakdown.”[5]

But what purpose do we have for a language that rushes for the edge of meaning, and what use for a syntax that can account for a world in disintegration? In Brutalisme, Achille Mbembe writes that power subjects the raw matter of life and non-life to “metamorphic” actions of “forcing and crushing,” of “fracturing and cracking.”[6] Power’s end goal, he claims, is “to appropriate the inappropriable,” to extract what was previously thought unextractable, relentlessly breaking down and depleting “all forms of life.”[7] This form of extractive power has made “the living prey to a process of carbonization” and has “transformed humanity into a geological force.”[8] So much so that, according to Mbembe, “all history is, by definition, geo-history, including the history of power.”[9]

More than conjure the violence of charred bodies, much like Plath’s omitted verse, the notion of the carbonization of lifeforms performs a concise, generative condensation that manifests a profound truth: a vertical incision, cutting through the linear structures of chronological and linguistic strata. Such efficient conceptual contraptions, or “image-thoughts” as Mbembe might call them, offer a semantic economy that enables us –in Anna Tsing’s words— “to dare  tell  the history of the world in a single sentence, or certainly a short essay.”[10] In a text grappling with the legacy of Egypt’s January 25th Revolution ten years later, Lina Atallah asks: “How can we deal with the past from a political, rather than historical, standpoint?” —a question that arises as an attempt to break away from the “tired discursive loop of success and failure” that discussions around revolutionary politics have fallen into.[11] Discussions all too familiar to all those involved in organizing during and since October 17th 2019, here in Lebanon.

It took different forms, this tired loop, most of which boiled down to questions of modes of address or disposition: questions about how to mobilize the parts of the population that have yet to join our huddle, how to address the party sympathizers among us, the bank tellers, the media… Questions which in turn led to other tactical dilemmas, like whether to block roads or take over state institutions, to focus on the Central Bank or the corrupt political class, to protest peacefully or resort to revolutionary violence, to prioritize direct action or political organizing… While these are important considerations that all revolutions must grapple with, it is hard to shake the feeling that the decrepit power infrastructure we are facing has us running circles around ourselves, trying to make ourselves as clear and coherent as possible, in response to its systemic chaos.

When interrogated by a reporter about what message he would like to convey to communications minister Mohamad Choucair, one protester famously replied: “I don’t want to convey any message to him; wherever I see him, I’m fucking him up.” [12] Another was in the midst of ripping down barbed wire from the barricaded government Saray when a journalist asked him what he was doing: “What am I doing?” he replied, “I’m getting my pants hemmed.”[13] The significance of these responses is not in how funny, clever, or flippant they may seem; rather the opposite, it is in how seriously they focus on practice over communication, on process rather than result. In effect, the message —if there was to be one— is “leave us alone, we have work to do.” 

The work to tend to is not about figuring out which of the above dispositions was the correct one, or inventing a new theoretical paradigm; rather, it is to write —in a short essay— the expansive contours of what is to be defended, how, and with whom. According to Moten, “it’s really about a new set of ethical and moral dispositions about how we treat… and…talk to one another.”[14] It is about compiling a “carrier bag” of operative vocabulary and proliferating as many “image-thoughts” as needed to take stock of the all-encompassing onslaught we are faced with.[15] And yes, a part of this arsenal must eventually communicate with the outside and translate to lobbying efforts, legal battles, political agendas, and social justice claims. But I would argue that the real matter is on some deeper level and is precisely that which does not translate, that which is not admissible, not credible, not palatable.

For this brutalism which runs on the ruination of all things; which colonizes our neurons, our digestive and respiratory tracts, our seas, mountains, and skies; which seeks to keep us poor, living in the dark, famished, and afraid… For this, and so much more, we need to locate registers that go beyond listing or taking inventory of the crimes committed upon us, a language that can convey —in a single sentence— how an exploded people might live. We need that restless language that rushes to the edge of meaning, a conception of time that enables us to cohabit with ghosts in the future. We need a sense of materiality that can decarbonize us but keep us geological and a whole set of subterranean practices that dig tunnels towards one another. 

The Derivative came out of such needs, as well as, as Atallah put it, out of a “constant need for spaces of praxis in order to keep doing what I am doing with a gist of meaning.”[16] It came out of a need to go beyond admitting defeat, “not out of blind hope or political naivete, but out of a certain conceptual blindness cast upon the entire conversation.”[17] Because in Moten’s words, “the particular kind of terror and… the particular history that we’re working through in these different ways, is not… something that you can talk about within a calculus of victory and defeat?”[18] For our second issue, we have assigned three new three-letter words to three new guest editors. We hope that these root words – though not quite “image-thoughts” per se— are generative enough that they may unfold into a subterranean network of praxis. We came to these words with particular departure points in mind and entrusted them to friends, old and new, so that they may think through them with us and others and dig in directions we may not have known the routes to. Tarek El-Ariss will grapple with و.ح.ش, the brute-the monster that extracts our very humanity. Public Works Studio will treat ر.د.م, the rubble of the state of ruination that we have come to live in since well before the explosion of August 4th. Rasha Salti will reflect on ق.ل.ق, the thick fog of disquiet and anxiety that has come to blur our vision. The structure remains the same: each editor has invited 5 contributors to unpack a different strand of the assigned concept, as well as one artistic contributor tasked with producing an artwork to accompany each of the writings. 


[1]The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, by A. Alvarez, 1971, pp. 32.

[2]Ibid 

[3]Duke Franklin Humanities Institute. “Moten, F & Saidiya Hartman at Duke University | The Black Outdoor.” Youtube, uploaded by Duke Franklin Humanities Institute, Oct 5, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_tUZ6dybrc&t=1924s 

[4]Bouchard, Donald F., editor. “Language to Infinity.” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, by Michel Foucault, Cornell University Press, 1977, pp. 54–55. 

[5]“A. Alvarez Dies at 90; Poet Elevated Both Sylvia Plath and Poker.” New York Times. Web. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/23/arts/a-alvarez-died.html.

[6]Mbembe, Achille. “Brutalisme.” Paris: La Découverte, 2020. 8. Print.

[7]Ibid p 32

[8]Ibid p 9

[9]Ibid

[10]Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species. Environmental Humanities. 1. 141-154. 10.1215/22011919-3610012. 2012. p. 142

[11]Attalah, Lina. “Things I Learned on How Not to Remember the Revolution.” Mada Masr. 25 Jan. 2021. Web. 12 Mar. 2021. https://www.madamasr.com/en/2021/01/25/opinion/u/things-i-learned-on-how-not-to-remember-the-revolution/

[12]  قناة العشوائية. “الثورة في لبنان #ثورة(1)” Youtube, uploaded by قناة العشوائية. Oct 18, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJVUeGK-t9k

[13]  Baba, M. “عم قصر بنطلون” Youtube, uploaded by Mazen Baba, January 27, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6utCuv3kghc

[14]Moten, F.

[15]“I’m not telling that story. We’ve heard it, we’ve all heard all about all the sticks spears and swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained. That is a new story. That is news.” 

“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” Dancing at the Edge of the World, by Ursula K. Leguin, Grove Press, 1989, pp. 4. https://otherfutures.nl/uploads/documents/le-guin-the-carrier-bag-theory-of-fiction.pdf

[16]Atallah, L.

[17]Ibid

[18]Moten, F.

A Vicious Viscous Matter Seeping into the Souls of a Ravaged City

It is said that one’s self-image differs from the view of others. It is also said that the further reality strays from an ideal, the more the likelihood of an existential crisis intensifies and the blurrier one’s self-image becomes. The monster within awakes as the self dissociates from the lived reality. Unable to live in the present, burying the past becomes the only way forward.

We launch the second issue of The Derivative with three new guest-editors: Rasha Salti on Disquiet “ق.ل.ق”, Tarek El-Ariss on the Savage “و.ح.ش”, and Public Works Studio (Jana Nakhal and Abir Saksouk) covering Rubble “ر.د.م”. With our guest editors, we have selected three new root words that resonate with the circumstances we are suffering through, three questions that can begin to address these conditions. With these root words, our editors have sought out writers and artists to offer various vantage points to observe this reality.

As complete uncertainty weighs on Lebanon —be it on the political, economic, or security fronts— people have grown accustomed to a state of deadlock. And that is exactly the intention: the imposition of a stalemate which forecloses any possibility of new rhetorics or alternative practices able to shift the status quo. And so, as resistant political voices struggle to adapt, it is the current system that regenerates itself through its own crises, as it always has. With the enforced lockdown moving people from the street into their homes, in the absence of any other outlet, anxiety has flooded their minds. Since the explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4th, their faces have grown visibly paler and eyes blearier. In a country accustomed to misfortune and calamity, adrenaline continues to flow well after the moment of immediate danger, in anticipation of a series of future unfortunate events —an anticipation at the core of chronic panic attacks.

Walking the streets of Beirut, one is met with wandering eyes that reveal scattered thoughts. A man stands alone in the sun, chain smoking. Eyes fixed to the ground, he talks to himself. A girl runs; jogging is not so much a workout as it is a means to sweat out her anxiety. She breathes heavily, coming to a halt a few minutes later. She bends over, trying to catch her breath, grabbing her midriff —I can feel her abdominal muscles cramping— before she attempts to resume her run with a long inhale. Disquiet… Panic attacks… they constitute a dark matter that flows in the city, moving from one body to the next, nestling in people’s guts, in their chests, in their heads. At other times, it infiltrates the gasp of an old man, wanting to swallow the world but unable to catch the slightest breath.

This anxiety stems from our inability to express our anger, or rather our incapacity to find suitable outlets for it —as psychiatrists so often suggest. In a country with a destroyed capital, it has become commonplace to see a woman crying on the pavement. A cry… A rush of adrenaline… which, for reasons that have become evident, refrains from building up into a state of rage. This paralysis comes from the fact that Beirut was bombed, that it is in economic turmoil, that corruption has turned into immeasurable insolence to the point of cynicism, that the poor can no longer afford to abide by lockdown restrictions, especially with the banks having stolen every last penny of their savings. In the complete absence of any horizon of political reform, all that is left to do is bury our anger deep within ourselves, the way they buried the city under a pile of rubble. And until the day the monster wakes up from its slumber, implacable and unstoppable, people’s faces will remain flooded with anxiety and panic attacks.

This country will never again be as it once was. I have never been able to wrap my mind around this sentence —as if “as it was” was necessarily better. Perhaps what is intended is that, once upon a time, there was a vision for a better country, a vision able to conjure a collective dream. But now we are at a point where even pondering the possibility of this vision seems out of reach. This should surprise no one given the fact that Lebanon never underwent a process of defining the role of the state in securing the well-being of its citizens. Instead, this republic has undergone nothing but power struggles, identity crises, and wars. In fact, one of the few plans that were implemented, the post-war reconstruction project, proved to be nothing more than a precursor to the state of entropy that we are witnessing today. What remains is a country suffocating under the weight of its own sectarian system and capitalist regime to which citizens are incapable of envisioning alternatives. It is a system whose crises intellectuals work hard to analyze, to develop a critical discourse capable of countering it —but to no avail. 

Indeed this country will never againbe as it once was, before the economic crisis, or before the uprising, or before the Ta’if agreement. And so, those of us whose dreams have been defeated and who can no longer stand being exiled from our selves and from our country, eventually seek exile somewhere far away. 

We couldn’t find a way to translate our anger into violence; we were barely able to summon that anger in the first place, when we occupied the squares during the uprising. The squares of Solidere never belonged to us to begin with, and we knew that. The cops who shot at us with live ammunition knew it too. Perhaps we did not translate our anger into violence out of fear, or perhaps it was out of self-preservation. It wasn’t until our peaceful resistance and refusal of state repression were met with an unthinkable escalation of violence, that of the blast of August 4th, that the beast in us finally awoke, and signs reading “hang the gallows” were plastered on the walls of Beirut.

Before we delve into the figure of the beast in literature and poetry —or treat it as a matter that infests our insides, we must contend with another beast. It is a beast that weighs most heavily on our chests, a creature with tentacles so long and pervasive that they penetrate every aspect of our lives, consuming our flesh with insatiable greed. It is the monster we have come to know as power. It is elastic and takes on many appearances, inhabits many scales —never fixed in any single state. You might glimpse at it taking hold of a pill for cancer treatment, only to swallow it whole and spit out its counterfeit stand-in. It is a monster that propels you into darkness then flippantly tells you to “immigrate if you are not content with the situation”. It sneaks in on you under a sectarian veil to excuse corruption, and under a legal veil to pardon a politician. It grows bigger and bigger when irritated, responding with live rounds fired, residences bombed, and naysayers assassinated. Its greed ignites wars, implanting its monster offsprings in each and every one of us.

How many a fighter metamorphosed during the war into a beast willing to devour anything it can stick its claws into, while those of us scared of power’s greed tried to flee? In exile, we buried as much as we could of our memories, of the sea, of the city. Burial is a political act, one the authorities are well-versed in. They live off of it and practice it to guarantee their survival. They bury evidence at a crime scene, as in the case of the massacres of the Civil War; they profit from toxic landfills; they bury memories to avoid dialogue, to avoid a reconciliation with the past —as is the case with the forcefully disappeared. Indeed, this is a regime of quick and systemic burial, a regime whose capacity to make us forget the aftermaths of its violence is only reinforced by its ability toproliferate violent political events. It is in our daily political struggle and our proclamation of the phrase “so as not to forget” that we take a stance against this blatant attempt by this monster to bury its corruption and impotence.

Faced with the horror of the dissolution of the state, which is to say the loss of community and the ties that constitute a social fabric, an anxiety shared by all factions of this community, its sects, civil society, and agnostics emerges. For some, this anxiety stems from awareness; for others, it stems from  impotence, surrender, and the wait for some kind of directive from their political strongman. For some, it is a sectarian anxiety stemming from one sect’s fear of the other and the fear of being defeated by it. There is the anxiety that the republic, in its current form, has decomposed and that what is to come is worse than the current situation. It is the anxiety that this decomposition will produce vagrant beasts that would ravage all within reach, the anxiety that stems from the awareness that we are burying our rage, along with our failure to formulate a communal project capable of producing a new social contract. In the face of the sheer enormity of this anxiety, there are the few of us who have foregone our sects, who dream of a community built on justice. We fail to stand up to the tentacular beast that is power, betting instead on it succumbing to its own crises, hoping for its downfall and its eventual implosion.

There is news of road closures here and there on my feed. They are, as always, a reaction to the deplorable economic and political conditions we are facing. I head to Martyrs Square, knowing that there is likely just a handful of people protesting and a few others blocking the roads with burning tires. As I look around me; I see no familiar faces from the days of the October uprising and none of the political organizing groups —only a handful of angry youths lighting a fire in the middle of the road. The blaze adds a layer of char on the asphalt, already cracked by the incessant rounds of flaming tires over the past months. A young man approaches and pours more gasoline on a tire further igniting it. A black cloud of smoke quickly rises to cover the entire scene. Just behind Martyrs Square, the destruction caused by the criminal explosion of the port is still visible as the dark matter engulfs the city. It turns into a viscous, fast-moving matter, and we, those who inhabit this ravaged city, breath it in. It moves inside of us, either finding its way to the head or towards the heart, prompting accelerated heartbeats that signal the oncoming panic attack. Then it makes its way back to the gasp of that lonely old man standing in the street and the woman clutching her stomach, in the hopes of burying her anxiety, before it turns into a monster. Pale faces and bleary eyes walk this exploded city. The only thing to be done to be rid of this viscous matter is to gather it up and toss it in the face of power and all of its pillars. He is still blocking the road, that young man, pouring gasoline on the tire as he waits for the political organizers to revolt. Nobody seems to have the solution for this ravaged country; with accumulated setbacks and defeats, the time for posing questions has long passed. And if I am to end on a hopeful note, the only path is to join this young man waiting in the square on his own. There is no choice but to fight back time and again. Before the tire-burning boy also turns into a beast, perhaps we, exhausted orphans, should join him and gather the viscous matter to throw it in the face of the beast, expelling this anxiety from the rubble of our present. Perhaps the street is once again our only hope before we all become exiles in a homeland that loves to bury its victims.

Translation: Jamal Ghosn – Haig Aivazian – Lori Kharpoutlian