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.

The Imam and the Giraffe

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

Marseille was by no means the ultimate destination in Rifa’a al-Tahtawi’s book Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Paris (“The Extraction of Gold from the Review of Paris”) but rather a station of transit to the French capital. Like the other waystations, it is a place of harbingers, presaging the moments and encounters that he will explicate later in the book. He concludes the first part of the second passage, “On Our Residency in Marseille,” thusly: “Among the things I saw in Marseille, there was a place of recreation, called the spectacles (al-sbiktākil). It is a truly remarkable thing but one that must be seen with one’s own eyes since it is impossible to grasp by means of a description.”[1]

The Marseille press paid no heed to al-Tahtawi’s passage through the city, nor did it make mention of the forty-four-student mission sent by Muhammad Ali Pasha to France in 1826.[2] At that time, it was a city whose harbor was a major point of entry to France, a city that had lost half its residents to the plague of 1720, a city where throngs of people were arriving every day. Marseille was, in other words, a portal to regimes of inspection, examination, isolation, care under custody, and public health protection – regimes upheld by three, gargantuan quarantine institutions. The Marseille press and inhabitants did, however, work up an obsession of sorts from October 1826 through mid-1827 around the passage of a giraffe through the city, also en route to Paris. After twenty-five days at sea, this giraffe passed through the same ports and cities as imam al-Tahtawi, and it was known by numerous monikers: Egyptian Beauty, The Pasha’s Giraffe, African Beauty, Africa’s Giraffe, Daughter of the Tropics, Charles X’s Giraffe, and Geoffroy’s Giraffe.

It is a story that comes up in many sources: Muhammad Ali once gifted a giraffe to King Charles X. Arriving in Marseille on October 23, 1826, it was the first living giraffe to make it to France. All that the French knew about giraffes was based on two taxidermied specimens exhibited at a Paris research center since 1764. The giraffe that arrived in Marseille was kidnapped, along with her sister whom Muhammad Ali sent to George IV in England, from their mother in the mountainous region of Sennar in Nuba. The giraffe of George IV was put on display behind a viewing window at Windsor Park and died shortly thereafter. The giraffe in our story departed from Alexandria for Marseille with two caretakers, Hassan and ‘Ateer, and three cows. The bovines provided sustenance for the still-nursing giraffe calf. The quarantine official drafted a report about her every day during her period of isolation. The giraffe spent the entire winter in Marseille, where it was relatively warm, and was put on daily display as a sight to behold for the city’s residents and itinerants throughout her residency. On April 3, 1828, there was a meeting among the scientists of a Paris museum to elect who among them would go to Marseille to escort the giraffe to the capital. Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844) was chosen for the task; he had participated as an expert in Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to Egypt in 1798 and became a member of the French Académie des Sciences in 1807 – two decades later, he would end up teaching Charles Darwin. In addition to bringing the giraffe to the King, alive, his mission entailed an anatomical study of her joints and bones so that, in the event of her death, God forbid, she could be embalmed for the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Walking behind the cow and in front of the giraffe en route from Marseille to Paris, Geoffroy would tend to her health and tell ‘Ateer and Hassan what to do at every turn. Sometimes, he would precede the arrival of the procession to the next town in order to set up her sleeping quarters in a stable. Once, he had to conduct an operation on her hoof, surgically removing a nail. In every town, the giraffe was like a touring show in the public sphere … until her biggest performance on July 9, 1827, when she was presented to King Charles X. From then on, she lived in the Jardin des Plantes where, for four hours a day, four days a week, she was put on display. More than 600,000 people paid her a visit in a six-month period.[3]

So Marseille witnessed two crucial events in the year 1826: the passage of al-Tahtawi with the student mission to which the city’s residents paid little if any heed, and the passage of a giraffe, which aroused the passions of these same denizens, who documented and discussed her every move. Looking back in retrospect, two centuries later, we know that the imam’s travel writing became – at least in modern Arab culture – a foundational text, pivotal in the discovery of Western modernity and in the concept and defects of modernism. We also know that the imam played a vital role in establishing what we refer to today as the discourses of the Nahda, Arab enlightenment, and East-West relations. Furthermore, as evidenced by her representation in paintings, inspiration of theatre performances, and influence in furniture design and women’s hairstyles, we also know that the giraffe made quite an impression on people in her lifetime – so much so that the profits reaped from her spectators’ tickets were invested in building projects to expand the Paris zoo.[4] Even post-mortem, her corpse became significant given that French zoologists were more inclined to anatomy and physiology than to ethology, or the study of animal behavior.[5]

Egypt’s wali, Muhammad Ali himself, sent the students on this mission so that, upon their return, they could teach and contribute to the foundations of the modern state. He also sent the giraffe to build his relationship with the monarch and press of France while, at the same time, paving the way for the prospect of future student missions. There was actually, starting in February 1825, a growing enmity in the French press against the wali because he had sent his son Ibrahim Pasha at the head of an army to Greece in order to suppress a rebellion against the Ottomans. As al-Tahtawi and his peers were departing from Cairo to Alexandria on that Friday 8 Shaaban 1241 (March 17, 1826), the newspapers of Lyon and Marseille were inveighing against the victories of Ibrahim Pasha and expressing their sympathies with their Peloponnese brethren, suffering under Egyptian domination. The historical chronicle indicates that the Egyptian army did not withdraw until European forces, including those of France, defeated them in 1828, the same year that Muhammad Ali decided to send an Egyptian obelisk as another gift to Charles X. In fact, the obelisk would safely arrive in Paris in 1833.

Even though al-Tahtawi spent no more than fifty days in Marseille, eighteen of which were in quarantine, and even though he dedicates no more than a handful of pages to the city in his book, it is through Marseille that he establishes a dramaturgy, or a rubric to determine which scenes become milestones of his journey. In that same vein, it is through Marseille that he formulates the sinews of narrative, or the paths to follow in his storytelling, going so far as to describe for his readers that which cannot be “seen with your own eyes.” For example, he introduces the digression as a rhetorical device, which enables him to step outside the spectacle of a moment in order to describe it, as follows: In his discussion of the quarantine, he draws in the opinions of two faqihs, or religious scholars, from Morocco and does not hesitate to underline their divergent perspectives on the matter of the Earth’s rotation and its revolution around the sun. Afterward, he presents the quarantine residence – mapping out the place, its dining etiquette, and rituals of sleep.

Starting in Marseille, al-Tahtawi goes back and forth between language choices in order to describe the indescribable, constantly negotiating with two languages. Sometimes, he endows an Arabic word with the capacity to expand and accommodate meaning beyond its confines or constricts the interpretative range of a French word to draw an equivalence with an Arabic counterpart. And in some instances, it becomes inevitable to transliterate a French word, like spectacle, thereby midwifing a hermeneutic terrain of imaginative ambiguity.

And it is also starting in Marseille that Rifa’a’s singularity emerges with the use of the first-person pronoun, or I. Starting with his introduction to the story of his selection for the student mission (“When my name was entered among those of the travellers…”[6]), the first-person, plural subject we dominates the narrative. With phrases like “we stepped aboard,” “we kept walking,” “we passed by,” “let us recollect,” “we replenished,” “we heard,” “we saw,” and “we set anchor,” the we refers to the students of the mission, from the moment of their departure from Egypt to that of their landing in Marseille. After Marseille, the meaning of we expands to refer sometimes to the subjects of the wali or to Arabs, Muslims, or Egyptians among others. After stepping out of the huge quarantine facility to which al-Tahtawi always refers as “home” and going out into the urban space of Marseille, the first thing that Rifa’a describes are the cafés as well as the streets, carriages, women, and dazzling shops clad in mirrors. Returning to one café in particular, he goes into a detailed description and finds himself standing in front of a mirror, where the singular pronoun as narrator arises, separate from the collective we:

When I entered this coffee house and sat down there, it felt like being in a huge bazaar because of the huge numbers of people there. When a group of people appeared both inside and outside, their faces appeared on all sides in the mirrors, and one could see the multiplicity of people walking around, sitting and standing. One thus got the impression that this coffee house was a street, and I realized that it was an enclosed coffee house only because I saw our multiple images [reflected] in the mirrors.[7]

Now, we may bring the work of Derek Gregory and his article “Cultures of Travel and Spatial Formations of Knowledge” into this discussion and consider the traveler in this instance not as a student drawn to a teacher but rather as the very bearer of pedagogy.[8] Being drawn in and captivated as if by gravity is a collective action, wherein individuals in assembly participate. In contrast, to bear or to bring into being – to create, to engender – is a phenomenon of the singular, an action which transpires only upon the moment of estrangement that strips personhood from the collective reflected in the mirror. Al-Tahtawi’s language is indicative of this, as in the phrases “When I entered,” “I passed a moment there,” “I gave it all a good think,” “so it was thought,” and “I came to know all that I knew I didn’t know.” Moreover, in the scene, al-Tahtawi does not deploy the mirror as a symbol or a symptom of his ignorance; instead, he underlines his familiarity with mirrors: “The special glass of these mirrors was the reason for all this – in our mirrors back home, the images of people are usually consolidated.”[9] Neither does the grandiosity of the mirrors strike him. Before departing Egypt, he along with his peers of the mission spent twenty-three days in the Alexandria seraglio of the wali Muhammad Ali, a period in which they rarely ventured out into the city.[10] But he nevertheless makes no mention of the palace mirrors given they do not muddle anyone’s mind; grand as they may be, they are in a private residence. No doubt the wali’s seraglio like the quarantine facility was also a “home” for Rifa’a. It is in a moment of fragility, of personhood’s vulnerability, that Rifa’a creates a spectacle, wherein the mirrors turn the café into a bazaar or passageway before he realizes that it is an enclosed space. It is neither home nor palace, neither street nor bazaar – it is a crowded, public space in which this moment of interiority, of looking inward, transpires.

The short, descriptive accounts of urban landscapes written by Muhammad Mazhar Effendi are the only other extant texts we have from the group of students traveling with al-Tahtawi on that first journey to France. These accounts are organized around the following topics: height of the buildings, cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and traveling ladies in Marseille. As for Paris, they cover the gardens and public parks and broach indescribable matters: “What I saw was the pinnacle of creativity, of artistry and craftsmanship. I would go often to the malls (theatres), which you would not understand unless you were there to see it with your own eyes.”[11] Unfortunately, Mazhar effendi authored his text in French and composed it as if it were a letter to a relative; it garnered a French Composition and Grammar Award and was referenced by Mssr Jomard in his 1828 report on the achievements of the student mission. So we do not actually know whether Mazhar effendi used the word théâtre or spectacle because Mssr Jomard translated it as “malls (theatres),” which leaves us with only al-Tahtawi’s spectacle.

The young Rifa’a left Cairo during the period of its so-called “urbanization” and passed through Alexandria, which he has likened to Marseille on a number of occasions, but not once did he narrate a similar moment of vulnerability before leaving Egypt. Al-Tahtawi’s fragility in that Marseille café is his most brazen, most refined, expression of melancholy; its quality is not of the loneliness of a desolate wasteland, nor of a cry in the wilderness, nor of recognizing one’s face in a mirror, nor of nostalgia for the homeland.[12] Rather, it is the melancholy of coming to terms with that which is the city – that is, with the public sphere, as defined by Jürgen Habermas, in the first half of the nineteenth century. In his definition, there is a certain temporality that frames this public sphere, rendering it an open space mainly for citizens; it enables the emergence of sundry new social practices, in the wake of a dwindling connection to the church and the elite, aristocratic salons, a connection on the wane since the late eighteenth century. In the Habermasian public sphere, it is the café, the newsprint press, and the culture of criticism in particular that form the contours of this space.[13] The scene proffers the lexicon for al-Tahtawi’s first encounter with the public sphere; the café is by no means host to a gaggle of urban riffraff but rather gathers the patrons of etiquette. It is furthermore distinguished most notably by the presence of women who frequent the café as well as by the schema regulating where people sit, the way in which they order drinks, the size of the coffee cup, and also the newspapers, or “the made-to-be-read papers of day-to-day events.”[14] It is almost as if al-Tahtawi was an early ethnographer of modernity as represented in the public sphere at a time when ethnography was restricted to white researchers doing their field work around the headwaters of rivers, lakes, and jungles – seemingly undiscovered sites. The subjects of these ethnographies were tribes, the inhabitants of the wild, the impoverished, and herds of exotic animals – all that which fell outside the constitutive parameters of so-called “civilization.”

As for the giraffe, had she been able to speak, we might have had a glimpse into the melancholy that clouded each step of her journey, far from the forest, family, and natural world, but alas she is not a creature of many words. The historical archive, however, holds the published testimonies of other people who documented her every move – people like the quarantine official, her doctor Geoffroy, eyewitnesses, painters, storytellers, poets, and zoological experts. Although the giraffe could not bring into being, create, or engender scenes alone, she herself was the spectacle, stirring the spirit of curiosity much more so than did the students on an educational mission. From the wonders of the jungle unknown to the alleys, squares, streets, royal palaces, botanical gardens, and zoos – she finally ended up as an autopsied and taxidermied corpse on exhibit for some time in Paris’s museum of natural history. The giraffe as spectacle, dead and alive, made her mark in the early stages of the domestication of public space – the same public space which al-Tahtawi in his travelogue tried to define and to describe and which ultimately ended up taming him, rendering him fit for domestic society, despite his strangeness. To consider the legacies of the giraffe and al-Tahtawi in tandem is to venture into a labyrinth of spectacles: we watch Rifa’a peering into the mirror as we watch the spectators beholding the sight of the giraffe walking through the city.

In Takhlis al-ibriz (“Extraction of Gold”), al-Tahtawi dedicates the seventh part of his second passage to the public gardens of Paris, returning to the postponed discussion on theatre, or spectacle:

These theatres resemble large houses surmounted by a huge dome. Inside, there are several floors, each of which has rooms [boxes] arranged around the inside of the dome. At one side of the building, there is a large stage, on which all these rooms give out, so that everything that goes on there is visible to the people that are inside the building.[15]

Spectacle is indescribable, not because of the Arabic language’s lexical incapacity or inability of a single word to accommodate a meaning otherwise not within its breadth; instead, spectacle as a public space was a bizarre wonder, and without reference to terminology of the private space – “house,” “home,” and “rooms,” it is impossible to domesticate through translation … which came to the attention of the scientist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. As he prodded the three cows to walk in front of the giraffe, in a bid to give her a sense of security, she once refused to budge for fear of the crowds of spectators. So he got her a horse, to walk in front of her, and thus she resumed her march to Paris.

Translation: Eyad Houssami

[1]. Daniel L. Newman, An Imam In Paris: Al-Tahtawi’s Visit to France (1826–31) (London: Saqi Books, 2004), Kindle Edition, 5104. Original Arabic in Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Paris (Cairo: Al-hay’a al-masriyyah al-‘amah lil kitab, 1993), 122.

[2]. For insights into the qualities of the discourse around the 1826 mission to France, see Alain Silvera, “The First Egyptian Student Mission to France under Muhammad Ali,” Middle Eastern Studies 16, no. 2 (1980): 1–22. In his article, Silvera conveys how the academic discourse was comprised of official reports by a certain Mssr Jomard and his press releases, which pertained to the pedagogical progress of the students, whom he describes as vanguards. In contrast, the popular Parisian press ridiculed the students in 1827–1828 as demonstrated by Silvera on pp. 12–13 of his article.

[3]. For more details on the giraffe’s story and for more bibliographical references, see Olivier Lagueux, “Geoffroy’s Giraffe: The Hagiography of a Charismatic Mammal,” Journal of the History of Biology 36, no. 2 (2003): 225–247.

[4]. Ibid., 240.

[5]. Ibid., 241.

[6]. Newman, 32. Original in al-Tahtawi, 20.

[7]. Ibid., 5027. Original in al-Tahtawi, 119.

[8]. Derek Gregory, “Culture of Travel and Spatial Formations of Knowledge,” Erdkunde 54, no. 4 (2000): 297–319.

[9] Al-Tahtawi uses the term thuthni (doubles, consolidates):

فعرفت أن هذا كله بسبب خاصية الزجاج؛ فعادة المرآة عندنا أن تثني صورة الإنسان.

See al-Tahtawi, Takhlis, 119.

[10]. Al-Tahtawi, 96.

[11]. See Mssr Jomard’s 1828 report on the student mission in Al-Emir ‘Amr Tawsoon, Al-ba’athat al-‘almiyyah fi ‘ahd Muhammad Ali thumma fi ‘ahdei Abbas al-Awal wa Sa’id (Alexandria: Matba’at Salah al-Din, 1934), 20.

[12]. Tarek El-Ariss, “On Pain and Untranslatability in the Literary World of Rifa’a al-Tahtawi,” in Wiley Blackwell Companion to World Literature, ed. Ken Seigneurie (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019), 169–12. In El-Ariss’s reading, this scene is interpreted through a framework of pain and internal collapse endured by al-Tahtawi. This collapse is likened to that of Jacques Lacan, which he terms the embodiment of otherness – as epitomized by the “mirror stage” in which a unified reflection of self correlates with the singularity of image and identity. Al-Tahtawi’s encounter with the mirror in Marseille is, for El-Ariss, a moment of confusion, which unsettles al-Tahtawi and his nostalgia for the homeland. Indeed, it is the notion of “identity” that underpins El-Ariss’s reading and that furnishes the lexical field churning in al-Tahtawi’s consciousness upon his confrontation with the self in the mirror. My reading of the scene engages, no doubt, in a conversation with that of El-Ariss.

[13]. Jürgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere,” in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, eds. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 398–404.

[14]. Al-Tahtawi, 118.

[15]. Newman, 6453. Original text in al-Tahtawi, 204–205.

For Rubble

For Disquiet

Bone Insurrection

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

The Dream I Didn’t Dream, Part 1

In my dream, I was taking inventory of the bones in my body, only to find one missing.

I must have miscounted, I thought at first.

So I counted them all over again only to find, this time round, two missing.

A smile drew across my face, certain as I was of the implausible scenario.


I decided to count them a third time; and, to my surprise, three bones were missing.

It was unbelievable…

I was certain that there was some mistake in my counting.

So I took to counting them a fourth time; but this time extremely slowly, bone by bone, with caution.

And it turned out that four bones were missing.

I was stunned.

I took to counting them again, and with every count–a fifth, sixth, seventh time–one less bone.

It was terrifying; I got really scared and didn’t know what to do. I was scared to try counting again because I was fairly certain that, if I kept on counting over and over and over again, I’d lose all my bones.

So that’s why I stopped. And didn’t take an inventory.

Anyway, now I know that there are at least seven bones missing in my body.

The Never-Ending Construction Site

I don’t usually remember my dreams when I wake up, but there are sounds that do continue to ring in my head. It doesn’t seem like the sounds have anything to do with the dreams I dreamed–even though I don’t remember the dream, I know there’s no relationship. What I remember are sounds of clamor coming from within my own body. They’re always the same sounds, with some variation, as if on the same theme: cracking, shoveling, hammers banging, crashing, gravel being poured into a landfill, clicking into place, welding, a chainsaw, the rumble of refrigeration, a rolling boulder, compressor, drilling, someone getting knocked around, sintering, scratching, rustling. It all sounds like a construction site, or a destruction site, or both. And it’s all happening inside my sleeping body. Strange how, when my eyes open, the sounds vanish, only the echoes reverberating in my head.

Hardest of all is trying to get out of bed. My bones make these strange, piercing noises as if it’s the first time they move. They creak and crack and grind against each other–the pain is of course tremendous, the agony severe. When I come to sit up straight on my bed, it feels like it’s the first time in my life I’m doing so. When I stand up, it’s like the first time I stand up. When I walk, it’s like the first time I walk. Day after day, I have to re-learn all these movements that I presumably know well and that I do every day, that we like to call “routine.” In other words, every day, I have this job of working to tame my estranged body, to render it a domesticated person.

That’s right: every day, I have to learn all over again how to stand, walk, sit, cross my legs, wave to my friends, bend over, run, jump, squat, kneel, rise up, be defeated. Sometimes, I’d be victorious, sometimes I’d fail. By the end of the day, I’d always be tired and exhausted, ready to crash. And thus to sleep I’d go, only to get thrown all over again into the pit of construction, or of destruction, or of them both.

Please Take Note

There are two types of people: those of sturdy build, others supple. I’m of the first type. I mean that literally not figuratively, which means that I am of a dried-out-and-crusty form of sturdy build. It’s all empty inside–necrosis by worms–and brittle. The faintest shock and it breaks apart, fractures.

In that sense, I’m of the second type: the people with supple build, but in the figurative sense. Which means that my build can’t keep up pace, it can’t endure. It’s weak and needs scaffolding to prop it up and keep it in place, standing upright, so that–should it snap–it won’t all crumble down to the earth.

I’m now 24 years old-er than 30, and my body still hasn’t gotten used to hardship. It can’t tolerate any sort of pain or hurt, nor can it withstand a sudden jolt of joy. All these years, and it hasn’t gotten used to anything. Not even the experience of life, not even the hardship of war has taught my body anything or strengthened its build.

My build is sturdy and feeble like the dried thistle we used to break apart with our soft hands when we were young. In its empty marrow, we’d look for the yellow worm crawling down and pull it out. We’d catch it, tie it up as bait in an iron trap, place it in the field, cover it up, and hide it well with dirt, leaving only the yellow worm still visible to the eye. There, it would wriggle in pain, dancing the dance of temptation for the birds luring one of them in. The bird would scrutinize it with its beak and then get stuck in the snare … and would eventually end up between the clean white teeth of the cute and innocent cherubs that we were.

Mass Grave

Eventually, I became convinced that there was a mass grave inside of me, that every night I was being thrown into it–my bones intermixing with those of other people. From the heap of bones, some bizarre something starts to take form: a bone from here, one from there; some long, some short; some thin, some wide. They start coming together to form a mongrel skeleton. I wake up dressed in it, or it in me–I wake up worn out as if returning from battle, war, famine, pandemic, and catastrophe.

That Same Night, Part 2

I found a human bone that wasn’t mine about five feet under the skin during an excavation of my own body. I tried to meet and greet someone from among those dead with no luck.

The bones were all mixed in a jumble.

So it wasn’t easy to know which bone belonged to which person or even which bone was for my own self.

I was able, nevertheless, to distinguish a few pieces of my own skeleton.

There was one particular bone that seemed to belong to my left foot.

There was also a wrist bone, about two-and-a-half inches in diameter, or about half an inch longer than my own wrist, that probably belonged to a man in his thirties.

I also found the pelvis of a young girl of about nine years old buried in a cavity within my own ribs.

I found a young guy’s leg, a child’s hand.

The jaw bone–and one gold tooth–of a forty-year-old woman.

The bones were scattered about inside my body.

I also found a skull among them, of an older man of at least eighty years old.

It seemed to me that he took a bullet in his skull.

Tonight, I would like to play the role of the left temple of this old man, who was no doubt murdered treacherously in a premeditated plot.

No matter that I have no idea who he might be or what he does.

If I were to think of who he might be… just maybe…

Kamal comes to my mind…

Tonight, I want to be his ten fingers.

If this person were someone really dear to me,

It would be Maryam.

Whose waist I want to be.

Someone else has come to mind–no need to say their name.

I’m going to be their torso.

I’m going to perform the role of the shoulders of the person who gave me this ring.

I was holding her right hand, my first time witnessing someone dying.

I’m going to be her right hand.

Tonight, I’m going to be his left elbow.

Her stomach.

One of his toes.

Her chest.

Her neck.

His respiratory system.

Her nervous system.

Their genitals.

Their heartbeat.

Tonight, I’m going to be the eyes of my beloved.


I once read that, when you’re introducing yourself, you shouldn’t say, “My name is so and so.”

Instead, you should say, “My name was so and so.”

How many corpses am I? How many slain? How many deaths have I died? What memory remains of them?

Death by an armed clash, by a soldier’s bullet, by the rods of thugs, by the spray of bullets from the militia of the Sayyed and his lackeys, by bullets of celebration, by a sniper’s shot, in a protest, by an explosive, in a simulation, by accident, by surprise, by suicide, by assassination… So many deaths, and every time I wake up more dead than before.


My name was Rabih.

Translation: Eyad Houssami


1. The Dream I Didn’t Dream: this text is an excerpt from Water between Three Hands, a dance performance, written and directed by Rabih Mroué, with choreography by the director and Dance On Ensemble–Berlin. The performance premiered on April 23, 2016, at Kampnagel, Hamburg.

2. Tonight: this text comes from the same performance.

Mental Health in Lebanon: Socially Buried, Individually Sought

Imad Kaafarani, Candlelight, Digital illustration. 2021

Given the unprecedented amount of crises that continue to unfold in Lebanon over the last two years, it is not surprising that the subject of mental health has been gaining long overdue traction. The events of the 17 October uprising exposed many to the trauma of a violent police state[1]; the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing response, like most other countries in the world, left many, and in particular vulnerable groups, battling with mental health conditions including anxiety and depression[2]; the Beirut explosion followed, exposing an already precarious population to acute trauma[3].

The immense social, economic, and political collapse facing the country has left countless suffering with no discernable end in sight. It is as though dust and debris barely have time to settle before being kicked up again by another subsequent disaster. As persons living in Lebanon scramble to recover from the last blow and brace themselves for the next, institutions and outlets continue to warn of a mental health crisis that is descending steadily upon us.[4][5]

But in order to analyze the current crisis—and consequently, a response to it—it is necessary to critically examine how mental health is experienced, negotiated, and understood in the context of collective social suffering and systemic violence and injustice. How can we understand mental health within its cultural frameworks, including within the framework of Western biomedicine, the dominant paradigm which dictates the parameters of health and of interventions while positing itself as neutral, objective, scientific truth? How do we reconcile the experiences of mental health—in illness and well-being—with the context of injustice and systemic oppression?

Responding to the rubble

One of the main indicators of the worsening burden of mental health on people in Lebanon has been the increase in reported suicides in the country.[6] One event in particular, the suicide of a 61-year-old man on the main street of the Hamra district in the summer of 2020, gained considerable media attention after the man left behind his clean judicial record and a suicide note saying “أنا مش كافر [I am not a heretic]”, thought to be a reference to the Ziad al Rahbani song of the same title, in which the lyrics continue: “I am not a heretic, but hunger is heresy […] poverty is heresy, humiliation is heresy”.[7] The incident sent shockwaves through the country, and a popular protest against deteriorating living conditions was organized on the same day.[8] Meanwhile, civil society and NGOs scrambled to respond with awareness campaigns on suicide prevention over traditional and social media, including branded slogans, televised and printed interviews, and the distribution of information about the national suicide prevention hotline.

The mental health response to the Beirut explosion unfolded on a larger scale. Following the explosion, NGOs, civil society groups, and health institutions saturated social media feeds and airwaves with neatly bulleted lists that designated what, according to the World Health Organization and other well-renowned institutions, constituted normal and abnormal reactions to trauma. Households in the neighborhoods affected by the blast were visited by team after team of NGO representatives in succession, including those performing mental health assessments. Once again, services such as free clinics and the suicide prevention hotline were signposted, and individuals were urged to be proactive in relieving the burden of trauma that had rippled through society.

Both these responses followed similar formats: largely coordinated by NGOs (owing mostly to the lack of a robust public health infrastructure in general), reliant on scientific guidelines generated by institutions centered in the West such as the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association, and, most importantly, reliant on the efforts of the individual sufferer to seek services and care.[9]

Within the paradigm of Western biomedicine, practices of mental health proudly tout the slogan of “bio-psycho-social.”[10] The theory refers to the interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors at the root of all mental health conditions. And yet, despite the glaring role of political, economic, and environmental factors in precipitating the public mental health crisis we face today, the responses to this crisis have often taken place on the individual front. Although the determinants of our current mental health burden are acknowledged to exist on the societal scale—capitalism, patriarchy, explosion, pandemic, collapse—interventions are largely limited to individual actions: reading lists of symptoms and assessing one’s mental states and the states of loved ones, seeking care at free clinics or over national hotlines, practicing “self-care,” all the while consuming the goods and services needed.

The practice of individualizing and pathologizing social suffering is one that is deeply rooted in the history of mental health in Lebanon, and even more deeply within the institution of psychiatry worldwide. Through examining the approaches towards mental health as they apply to the most disenfranchised in Lebanon—women, refugees, the impoverished, migrants, the displaced, and those subjected daily to systemic violence and exclusion—we can begin to understand how these approaches to social suffering and trauma have become a form of backfilling that erases narratives of history, dominance, and injustice under the guise of apolitical scientific and clinical guidelines and knowledge. Through placing the responsibility of seeking care upon the individual, the social component of this practice is buried under layers of backfilling that more often than not take place in isolation, far from the realities of collective suffering at the hands of systemic and structural violence. This allows for the commodification of mental health and well-being through the dominance of the self-care industrial complex at the hands of capitalist neoliberal expansion and in turn threatens to suffocate attempts to plant the seeds of solidarity and mutual support.

Burying (and buried by) the social

Burying the social—and, as a consequence, erasing the narratives of injustice—is a consequence of the over psycho-pathologization of mental health, which is central to the paradigm of Western biomedicine. In Lebanon, as in many other countries where this paradigm is dominant, the history of mental health care has involved various forms of burying and silencing. Today, long-stay institutions resemble what anthropologist Joao Biehl describes as traditional “zones of social abandonment”: spaces where the unwanted, deviant, or those who could not be cared for go.[11] Lebanon’s current legal code fails to protect the rights of the “mentally ill,” with some legislation including legal definitions of “the idiot [السفيه\ة]” and “the insane [المجنون\ة].”[12] These definitions, dating back to the Ottoman legal code, have often been legal grounds for guardianship abuse. As well as contributing to further marginalization and stigma, outdated laws also allow for existing systems of oppression to be organized and reproduced within the framework of “neutral” or “objective” science and medicine. In this way, those living with mental illness themselves become backfilled or buried.

On the other hand, we see the role of the clinical and pathologizing approaches to mental health themselves as tools in the practice of backfilling the social. Through focusing on clinical diagnoses, the spectrum and nuance of social experience is often reduced to diagnostic categories. Constellations of symptoms become bound into discrete pathologies, which, in turn, are demarcated by itemized checklists.

In Lebanon, this is common practice with disenfranchised and marginalized groups. A 2013 survey of migrant domestic workers admitted to psychiatric hospitals found that the demographic in question (mostly of Ethiopian nationality) were more frequently diagnosed with psychosis in comparison with Lebanese patients, implying an increased vulnerability to mental illness of this particular group.[13] The study found that this group was also subjected to higher doses of antipsychotic medications, citing possible pressure from employers, as well as higher incidents of the use of physical restraints, citing possible communication challenges arising from language barriers. However, psychiatrist Kerbage (2014) takes the analysis further, suggesting that differential treatment of migrant domestic workers as well as the increased use of coercion and restraints are also likely due to the pre-existing structures of racism, discrimination, and the power structures playing out within psychiatric practice.[14]Kerbage also points out that reports of abuse are often omitted by medical teams for the sake  of medical neutrality. Moghnieh (2017) argues that these diagnoses often obscure the factors of institutional racism and that approaching the experience of these workers from a purely clinical lens only feeds into the cycle of their marginalization.[15] Structural factors, such as systems of racism, discrimination, and exploitation, not only act as determinants of mental health for migrant domestic workers, but also affect the very clinical practice assessing their mental health when it comes to this group, rendering them more vulnerable to coercive practices and psychiatric detention.

We often see this kind of backfilling—obscuring structural determinants of mental health under the veil of psychological categories—in our region, in the approach to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anthropologists of global health have argued that PTSD became a disorder that was often “exported” to areas of humanitarian crisis, and that the diagnosis often became caught up in the aid and relief industries.[16] Kerbage (2014) criticizes the use of PTSD as an overarching diagnosis for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, arguing that relying on decontextualized scales and checklists for diagnosis often obscured the very real determinants of well-being faced by refugees, including the lack of basic necessities, food insecurity, and poor and insecure living conditions.[17] Kerbage also argues that over-reliance on standardized scales risks pathologizing normal experiences of grief and loss following the events of war and displacement.

Lessons learnt from the importance of placing mental health and clinical diagnoses within their social and cultural contexts can help us turn a more critical lens towards the public health responses to the mental health crisis we face today. Services such as the suicide prevention hotline and temporary mental health clinics (such as those that sprung up following the Beirut explosion) may be therapeutic, but in their focus on the pathological can often fail to address—and even risk obscuring—root causes of exploitation, trauma, and suffering. Today, the public mental health crisis facing Lebanon is not one that stems from purely psychopathological causes, nor should it be treated solely on the level of individuals. While people living with pre-existing mental health conditions have historically been the subject of backfilling, the mental health disorders rising among the population are a product of acute socioeconomic circumstances, and their treatment as individual conditions has contributed to the burial and backfilling of a collective social suffering and a system of exploitation and abuse.

Individualization of social pain: when backfilling becomes an individualized process

Backfilling in mental health occurs not only through pathologizing social pain, but also through individualizing it. The individualization of social pain is not a chance phenomenon. Rather, this individualistic ideology is a product of the neoliberal hyper-focus on individuals and is best encapsulated in the rise of the self-care industry.

Self-care has historically been used by rights-based movements, including feminist and disability rights movements, as a radical tool to maintain mental health during struggles for liberation and justice. More recently, self-care has been co-opted by the neoliberal ideology of individualism and has become a means to ensuring that maintaining health and well-being remains the responsibility of the individual.[18] 

By framing mass social suffering as an individualized experience, perpetrators of oppression and systematic violence are absolved of responsibility, including the responsibility to address and remedy structural determinants. Instead, the responsibility to address mental health is funneled through the self-care industrial complex.

As a result, the mental health effects of a systemic, public, and social root cause have become our own personal issue–we are expected to evaluate and assess our mental health according to “objective” and “scientific” indicators, and based on those, to seek services, practice self-care, call lifelines, consume pop psychology through television and social media. In the scramble to return to work and economic productivity, for example, employers are also absolved of the responsibility to provide an accommodating environment that takes into account the effect of the public mental health burden on workers. Instead, it becomes the personal responsibility of the worker to seek individualized solutions for herself on her own time; and in many cases, she may find her livelihood threatened if she fails to do so and return to full productivity.

Great moral value is also ascribed to qualities such as resilience and adaptability, often in reference to the ability to sustain economic productivity. These qualities are, in turn, seen as markers of strength of individual character. It is also interesting to note that though these very terms are also used to describe markets in times of crisis, the use of “resilience” has been challenged especially in situations of injustice. It is here that lessons can be learned from the work of Rita Giacaman, who reflects on her encounters with the word “resilience” as a healthcare practitioner and researcher in Palestine: “From our perspective, it does not make sense to offer humanitarian aid, alleviate daily suffering and support Palestinian resilience so that they can cope, adapt and accept unacceptable conditions without also calling for justice to Palestinians […] This recognition of injustice and working towards its removal is a key component of ‘resilience’ building in the Palestinian and other contexts of injustice worldwide.”[19] Through this critical view on resilience, it becomes clear that any attempt to address mental health while burying these social contexts and structures will always be incomplete.

Mental health is built from and builds the social. It is backfilled or used to backfill. Through pathologizing and individualizing social pain, we have become burdened with the responsibility to backfill trauma into ourselves, and by doing so, we quietly erase and obfuscate the social reality of our psychic distress. By individualizing our suffering, we are also forced to cut ties with the collective, thus muffling our claims to intersectional solidarity. In Lebanon, systemic sources for the mental health burden demand political, systemic changes: individualized therapies and interventions may bandage the psychological wounds, but do not address the wounding factors. On an immediate level, the collective social suffering facing our society cannot be treated without deeply rooted systemic and structural change. More importantly, it cannot be faced by each of us alone: in order to truly heal we need to recognize that our individual experiences with mental health stem from a collective suffering, and thus healing becomes rooted in collective action.

[1] Barkil-Oteo, Andres. “Depressed? You Might Be Suffering from Oppression: On Malaise, Alienation, and Solidarity” The Public Source, 02 Apr. 2020, Accessed 4 May 2021.

[2] Fouad, Fouad M., Andres Barkil-Oteo, and Jasmin Lilian Diab. “Mental Health in Lebanon’s Triple-Fold Crisis: The Case of Refugees and Vulnerable Groups in Times of COVID-19.” Frontiers in Public Health 8 (2021): 1049.

[3] Tannouri, Sara. “I needed to make myself useful to overcome the panic” Voices from the Field, Medecins Sans Frontiers, 09 Oct. 2020, Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.

[4] UNICEF. “Mental Health as a Priority for UN in Lebanon during COVID-19 [Press Release]. 19 June 2020, Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.

[5] Hankir, Zahra, and Kareem Chehayeb. “Another explosion for Lebanon: The blast in Beirut made international headlines. Even before that the nation was in turmoil and it has only worsened the mental health crisis.” Index on Censorship 49.4 (2020): 8-13.

[6] Chehayeb, Kareem. “Broken Lebanon: Economic crisis takes its toll on country’s mental health.” Middle East Eye. 16 July 2020, Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

[7] “Broken Lebanon: Economic crisis takes its toll on country’s mental health.” Middle East Eye. 03 July 2020, Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

[8] “أنا لست كافرا لكن الجوع كافر.. انتحار لبناني في بيروت احتجاجا على سوء الأوضاع الاقتصادية” Al Jazeera. 07 July 2020, . Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

[9] Hijazi, Zeinab, Inka Weissbecker, and Rabih Chammay. “The integration of mental health into primary health care in Lebanon.” Intervention 9.3 (2011): 265-78.

[10] Hanlon, Charlotte, et al. “Interventions for Mental Disorders.” Global Mental Health: Principles and Practice, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 252–76.

[11] Biehl, João. Vita: Life in a zone of social abandonment. Univ of California Press, 2013.

[12] Kerbage, Hala, Rabih El Chammay, and Sami Richa. “Mental Health Legislation in Lebanon: Nonconformity to international standards and clinical dilemmas in psychiatric practice.” International journal of law and psychiatry 44 (2016): 48-53.

[13] Zahreddine, Nada, et al. “Psychiatric morbidity, phenomenology and management in hospitalized female foreign domestic workers in Lebanon.” Community mental health journal 50.5 (2014): 619-628.

[14] Kerbage, Hala. “Foreign Domestic Workers in Lebanon: The Missing Psychiatric Link.” (2014).

[15] Moghnieh, Lamia, and Filippo Marranconi. “Mental health strategy in Lebanon: an anthropological critique.” Mental Health 2017 (2017): 04-24./

[16] Breslau, Joshua. “Introduction: Cultures of trauma: Anthropological views of posttraumatic stress disorder in international health.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 28.2 (2004): 113.

[17] Kerbage, Hala. ” The Risks of Pathologizing Syrian Refugees: Towards a Collective Social Suffering Approach.” (2014).

[18] Ward, Lizzie. “Caring for ourselves? Self-care and neoliberalism.” Ethics of care: Critical advances in international perspective. Policy Press, 2015. 45-56.

[19] Giacaman, Rita. “Reflections on the meaning of ‘resilience’in the Palestinian context.” Journal of Public Health 42.3 (2020): e369-e400.

Our Little Palestine: Excerpts from the Diary of a Siege

Souhaib Ayoub, Untitled, watercolor. 2019

Abdallah al-Khatib was born and raised in the Yarmouk camp that houses Palestinian refugees since the Nakba. His friend Hassan Hassan was actively involved in the peaceful uprising that swept Syria in 2011. An aspiring filmmaker, he also assiduously documented the uprising in and outside the confines of the Yarmouk camp. On the day he attempted to leave the camp, Hassan entrusted Abdallah al-Khatib with his camera. He was seized shortly after by the security apparatus of the Assad regime and died at their hands. Al-Khatib filmed until the residents of Yarmouk were evacuated. Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege premiered in April 2021, what follows are excerpts from the notes al-Khatib drafted during the film’s fabrication.

– Rasha Salti

“Siege is a long and dull imprisonment that does not end behind the iron tracks of a cell, but rather stretches out like a desert on a summer’s day. Siege is a path that leads to madness or suicide; to be saved, you have to find an idea worth living for”.

I wrote these sentences at the beginning of the siege; they were perhaps one of the most compelling motivations for me to film and document daily life in the Yarmouk Camp. I wanted to document the impact of the siege, psychologically and socially, on its inhabitants, how it transformed their temperament and contrived their lives down paths they had not imagined, compelled from a mundane quotidian to harsh and ruthless schemes.

I was certainly not the only person to pick up a camera and wander the streets of the camp, looking for a scene ripe for capture. However, I was the only person who refused to disseminate my footage on social media and news outlets without reference to the context and the stories of the victims I was filming, victims I count myself among. The film seemed the only way for me to lodge the memory of the Yarmouk Camp in the world’s consciousness as a brand of shame in the twenty-first century. My grandmother told me once: “If you don’t continue to remember the dead and talk about them, they die a second time, my dear.” In order for the friends I lost during the war and the siege not to die again, I made a film. In order to remember how the people of Yarmouk lived, what they did during the siege, and how many gave their lives for a cause they believed in–or died for, tortured in the prisons of Assad’s regime– I made a film.

The film is the victim’s right to not die silently, to not be a mere number mentioned in a news segment. The people murdered in Yarmouk have names, stories, private lives, and a world of hopes and aspirations. The film was also my right to tell my own story, a means to reclaim the psychological equilibrium I lost during the war, to protect my own memory from slipping into forgetting and my mind from slipping into madness. The film is a missive from the inhabitants of Yarmouk Camp, they resisted the siege until it ended, and they did not end with it.


Some claim that the Yarmouk Camp is the capital of the Palestinian diaspora. This so-called camp, stretching south of the Syrian capital Damascus, was not made of stones or tents. Rather, it was (and remains) an idea that resists explanation just as stubbornly as it resisted death. Before the Syrian Revolution, Yarmouk was a place bursting with love and creativity, a reservoir of energy, housing the largest concentration of Palestinians outside of Palestine. At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March of 2011, the camp sheltered thousands of displaced Syrians and provided a haven for many activists. In 2012, assisted by Russian MiG jets, the Syrian regime launched a campaign of aerial bombardment and set up checkpoints to place the camp under a siege that would last for five and a half years and end with the forced expulsion of the camp’s inhabitants.

Perhaps the siege began when all the roads were blocked and incoming traffic to the camp was prohibited, or it might have started when bakeries and shops were forced to shut down and all food and medicine disappeared. Strangely, these actions did not seem to prevent people from going about their daily lives, as if all these measures were not directed against them. Every morning, they’d go out on hours-long journeys to get the five loaves of flat bread and the kilo or two of vegetables permitted per household. The goods were allowed into the camp after administering humiliation, briefly or at length depending on the mood of the masked security personnel who manned the checkpoint at the entrance to the camp. The checkpoint became symbolically known as the “Rafah Crossing Number 2”.

On the first day of Ramadan in 2013, without warning, the security officers prohibited people from returning to the camp after their trip to the market. A decree had been issued to close off the camp entirely and prevent any food and medicine from becoming available inside. The pleas of the women and men (among whom was my father) were useless. Many had left their children alone inside the camp while they journeyed outside to find food. The following day, the supply of electricity and water was cut off. The camp was locked shut with thirty-thousand residents inside it, many of whom were children and elderly. And so, simply through the writ of a decree signed by someone from the regime, the Yarmouk Camp was transformed from a civilized urban space that breathed the same air as Damascus into a scrap of geography outside of time–the inhabitants were sent back to an era that preceded the Middle Ages. This decree transformed me from a sociology student with plans to research post-modern societies into an observer of societal collapse and pre-state-formation relations.


The word siege acquired a different symbolic significance; when people uttered it, it was as if they had become detached from its reality. They were no longer talking about toppling the regime, building a new world, or any of the other things that were supposed to happen in the aftermath of our insurgency. They even stopped thinking about their destroyed homes. Instead, everyone talked about one thing, the simultaneous absence of certainty and absolute conviction that the siege would be defeated. It was as if they were battling a sort of mythological beast named “the siege”–which they really were. That’s how things started. None of us thought that we were on course for a series of defeats that not even our worst nightmares could ever upstage or wipe away.

Perhaps I too was as enthusiastic as they were. Towards the beginning of the siege, I repeated the famous verse: “Surround your siege with madness…and more and more madness still”. But I had not realized at the time that madness would become much more than a metaphor; everything certain about reality became distant, and madness would come to fill this symbolic distance. A voice inside me began to tell me that defeating the siege of Yarmouk would be an act of reclaiming history, since this siege stretched back to those that were crushed in the Tel al-Zaatar camp in 1976 and in Beirut in 1982. Similarly, and without any prompts, most of the elderly who had left Palestine seventy years earlier announced spontaneously that they refused to leave the camp because it had transformed into a new Palestine, besieged by an enemy that had finally revealed its true face. That’s how the symbolic vocabulary of Palestinians inside the camp was re-assembled to overcome the siege.

The perception of the challenge spilled everywhere, to the extent that we organized a football tournament inside the camp at the same time as people collapsed from hunger. It was as if we were wilfully ignoring death and refusing to show our tears when confronted with our enemy. The regime responded by placing baskets of bread outside the entrance to the camp in an astounding display of sadism to punish those who dared to exhibit signs of happiness within the camp.

Still from “Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege”, 2021. Courtesy of the director.


History cannot lie to me. From the stories of the siege of Tel al-Zaatar and Beirut, images surged in my consciousness, and I could see them in front of me in Yarmouk. People began to starve, they looked for dogs to eat, which in turn were starving and looking for cats to eat, which were also starving. At night, the wailing of hungry children prevented us from sleeping. Men left their houses fleeing hunger in anger, walking alone or in groups to the place where the vegetable market once stood. They vacillated, hunched from hunger in deserted and empty streets that were once filled with food, searching for edible weeds. Eventually, they found cactuses and prepared them for eating.

Whenever I thought we had hit rock bottom, I would be surprised by how the next day would turn out to be worse.


Death became a constant visitor. The trip to the cemetery became a daily ritual that people grew accustomed to, just as a child becomes habituated to going to school every day. Everyone thought they would die the following day.


The siege became our daily companion; we stopped thinking about how to rid ourselves of it or whether there was any way to do so. Everyone learnt to cope with it. We didn’t know that by doing so we were also resisting, each in our own way.


The increase in the rate of marriage, hardly in keeping with reality, was befuddling. Perhaps it was one of the ways ordinary people expressed their desire for life in the face of the death machine. As if they told the killer: “If you scorch the earth, we’ll still plant on the sides of the road. And if you kill our children, then we still have mothers who can give birth to more.” Marriage was the secret aspiration of the besieged: both men and women yearned to gather their quotidian losses and disillusionments and bury them in a bed of love. It was their desire to publicly mock the whole world. It was the camp shouting: “You killed me, and I forgot to die.”


Between the end of the day and the coming of another, there were evenings of music and song spent in temporary houses, those of us activists; between the end of a round of shelling and another oncoming, between the end of a spell of hunger and another oncoming, between mourning of one death and the next one oncoming.


The Yarmouk Piano was mounted on metal wheels and transported through the streets of the camp, accompanied by a group of young musicians singing, playing, and filming among the destruction. Those images were then uploaded to YouTube in the hope that the world would watch and listen, in the hope that they might provoke some kind of action to end the siege and save us from death. But nothing happened…


The siege shattered all sorts of social relations. Nevertheless, my mother and all the other women working in the camp whose roles had changed drastically, became like battering rams to break the siege. It was as if the people were understanding just how tough they were for the first time. In spite of the weight of patriarchal values reinforced by the war, these women were able to say and do whatever they wanted without the slightest fear or shyness. My mother did not hesitate to drive around on her little motorbike to reach the old people scattered throughout the camp, oblivious to social pressures weighing down on her.


My mother, Umm Mahmoud, was separated from her husband after he was forbidden from entering the camp and subsequently arrested. My mother, like many others, had been a housewife before the siege. She raised her sons, overseeing their education, spending her time moving between the different rooms of her home, managing with care and calm everyday life in her household. Suddenly she was transformed; first, she became Umm Mahmoud the nurse. She would set out on a tour of all the camp’s wounded first thing in the morning, offering jokes, food and medicine. Shortly thereafter, she set up an organization to take care of the camp’s elderly, the generation that survived the Nakba, displaced from Palestine seventy years earlier. They were amazing at spreading hope, and they were the very same people who refused to leave their houses in the camp, having learnt, all too well, that those who leave their houses never return.


Abu Ra’fat was part of that group. Abu Ra’fat was the kind of person who could make you cry and laugh at the same time. He was a summary of disparate bygone eras, the Nakba, the Naksa, the siege of Beirut, and all the other woes that have buffeted Palestinians over generations. Abu Ra’fat incarnated a concentrate of what it means to be a Palestinian refugee over the course of decades and one of the faces of hope that promises life and joy in the shadow of death reigning over the skies of the camp. With Abu Ra’fat, we laughed until we cried and we cried to the point of laughter.


There were days during the siege when pessimism grabbed a firm hold of me, and despair plunged me to the lowest of depths. I became cranky, irritated by the pettiest things. When that state overwhelmed me, my antidote was to go to where children gathered, to observe their laughter and the manner in which they mocked the siege. I would film them and film myself with them, laugh with them and let them laugh at me; then, I would return home and bellow “I am optimistic!” A word of caution however: cheerfulness may calm hunger and thwart it, but it will never succeed in silencing it. A hungry child can only be silenced by food. You can run away from a rocket and hide in a bomb shelter, but you can’t flee hunger, there’s no shelter from it, there is no haven from its pounding.


The siege will force you to eat anything, even rotting bread; or cactus leaves; grass deemed fit for cattle grazing only, and grass that even livestock refuse to eat. You will learn to treat weeds as if they were something sacred, a blessing from above, because weeds will faithfully be there for you up until your death. You learn not to step on anything because you might have to eat it a few days later.


The siege taught me to film and write. The daytime was for filming and night time for writing. I enshrined these tasks to myself so that my experiences would not be fleeting. They were also the lifejackets saving me from madness. The siege made me wear a clown’s mask to make the children in the camp laugh; in return, they taught me to appreciate the spontaneity of life which I was on the verge of forgetting. As it dragged over countless days, the siege had the capacity to drain the optimism from your face and fill it with despair.


The film ends with the end of the siege, when the camp’s inhabitants are forcibly expelled. In mid-May 2018, the Syrian regime supported by their Russian allies, launched a battle that they claimed was intended to liberate the camp from the hold of ISIS, that had seized control on April 1st, 2015. That battle did not end until the entire camp was destroyed, dozens of innocent residents killed, and the remainder of the inhabitants forcibly displaced to other areas in Syria. My mother left for Yalda, a suburb of Damascus, after her friend Abu Khalid, the ambulance driver, was killed. ISIS fighters were escorted by the regime to Suweyda in southern Syria, in airconditioned busses.


Today, the camp is a pile of rubble comprised of debris and the dreams of the besieged camp’s inhabitants. To me, as to the residents of the camp, Yarmouk is Palestine until we can return to Palestine.


I left Damascus to northern Syria, and from there I continued to Turkey. My journey ended in a camp in Berlin, Germany, exiled from my land and from my language.

I would like to thank Ahmad Amro for his valuable contribution assisting with writing and editing the original text of this dossier.

The Factory of Beasts

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

Two weeks into my prison sentence, as I stood by the cell’s open door during exercise time, I saw two inmates holding a third from his underarms. They were walking him through the corridor, with the prison guard hurrying them to move faster as they struggled with the heavy weight of his body and his enormous head sloping over his chest.

As they passed in front of me, he raised his head for a few seconds. I could not make out the size of the wound on his forehead as blood had covered half of his face. Drool was trickling from his wide-open mouth. He had one eye closed and covered in blood; the other was open and in shock. He looked my way but didn’t really see me. The look on his face was one of emptiness and absence. He wore a cheap plastic slipper on one foot only, while the other foot dragged bare on the floor, sweeping the dirt and cigarette butts off the corridor tiles.

Every now and then, that kid would attempt suicide or start trouble bringing physical harm onto himself and collective punishment onto those who shared a cell with him. One week after I first saw him, the electricity was cut off from the entire prison for a few minutes. My cellmates and I heard screaming, mooing, and barking coming from the adjacent cell. At that moment, I was standing by the cell block’s closed door, my nose sandwiched between its metal bars and the wire mesh covering them. I was trying to breathe in air that wasn’t saturated with fart—like the air which permeated the cell. An informant passed in front of me, along with two prisoners, carrying the kid to the prison clinic—except, this time, he was completely barefoot, and his upper body naked. The next day, we learned that he had tried to commit suicide by stripping the main wire that supplied his cell with electricity. After stripping part of it with his teeth, he grabbed onto the wire—and held onto it—while his body shook. They said that he would most likely survive but that he had suffered serious burns on his hands.

The kid kept on trying to commit suicide, until he drove the prison warden to despair. Finally, after much wrangling and negotiating, the warden succeeded in having him transferred to another prison, making him another warden’s problem.

The kid was no older than 21. He clearly suffered from a problem with his facial nerves, and no doubt other developmental issues which caused him to stutter, conflating letters and jumbling sentences. Everything about him pointed to the fact that he needed medical and psychiatric attention; he was clearly not in the right place.

But no one was able to help him. The kid was from the Sa‘id [a village in Upper Egypt], and came from a very poor family who would visit him once a month, if that. He was arrested arbitrarily, the excuse being that he wasn’t carrying proof of completion of his military service. He was then transferred to a military court, where he was charged with evading military service and sentenced to three years in prison.

A quarter of the inmates in our prison were here on similar charges. In all of Egypt, those evading military service constitute a significant burden on the penitentiary system, to the point that military prisons can no longer accommodate them, driving the Ministry of Defense to rent prisons from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, making them serve their sentences in civilian prisons.

In prison, we refer to them as the “soldiers,” most of whom come from working-class families. They evade military service for the same reasons that poor Egyptians have been avoiding military service since the time of Muhammad ‘Ali and to this day—namely in order to support their families and avoid going through the experience of the recruit Mitwali in the story of Shafiqa and Mitwali.[1] Most of them haven’t finished school; the lucky among them might be able to spell their names but are otherwise illiterate. Their families take them out of school early and put them up for any kind of work. By the age of 17, any one of these children is likely to spend his day working in a metal shop or driving a tuk tuk, their only moment of happiness being when they eat their bag of kushari soaked in salsa and chili sauce.

When he reaches 17, the age of obligatory military service in Egypt, he suddenly falls into a trap. The police officer looks at his ID and asks for proof of military service. Then, total darkness.

They pluck him from his home and his family which he supports in Upper Egypt or in the Delta and ship him to Cairo. Military trials are for show only, each involving up to 500 men accused of military service evasion. There’s no time for justice in these trials. The judge hurriedly issues his verdict and leaves, complaining of the smell of all these men’s sweat in the overcrowded courtroom.

Our dazed young man fell into this whirlpool and ended up at our prison. With the mind of a child in a man’s body, he only knew how to say koka, meaning chicken, and rizza, meaning a plate of rice.

Being in prison destroyed what was left of his conscience. All he could do was keep attempting his failed suicides, his mind too simple to manage a successful one.


Around 200 years ago, Muhammad ‘Ali decided to make military service mandatory for Egyptians. On February 18, 1822, he sent a letter to his governor in Girga, Ahmad Basha Taher, in which he said:

It is evident that we are sending our troops, led by our sons, to the Sudan to bring us blacks to use in our campaign in the Hijaz and for other such purposes… Since the Turks, who are of our kind, should stay close to us at all times rather than be sent to these faraway places, we find it necessary and appropriate to enlist a number of soldiers from Upper Egypt. We find it therefore appropriate to conscript around four thousand men from these districts.[2] 

After failed attempts to increase the size of his army, Muhammad ‘Ali was finally convinced that the only solution was to recruit Egyptians. He didn’t trust the Turks and Albanians with whom he shared the same ethnic background. He also twice tried—and failed—to conscript the Sudanese through enslavement and forced labor. In his book, All the Pasha’s Men, Khaled Fahmy makes clear the reason behind Muhammad ‘Ali’s hesitation to enlist Egyptians: he was worried that training the peasants on how to use weapons, and incorporating them into the army, might fuel their ambition, which would threaten the Turkish ruling class’s hold on power. He was also concerned that conscription would have a negative effect on agricultural production, the main source of revenue at the time that allowed Muhammad ‘Ali to accumulate enough wealth and modernize the army.

Alongside the modernization of the army, Muhammad ‘Ali continued building state institutions, from schools, to hospitals, to museums—all designed to serve the army and attend to its needs. For example, the purpose of the first vaccination program in Egypt, which was against smallpox, was to maintain the citizens’ health with the sole purpose of making them eligible for military service. It was on this basis that the modern Egyptian state was founded.

The king is at the center, and around him is the army—built on the backs of constantly derided conscripts. Then come the state institutions whose primary purpose is to serve this army. Outside this circle lurk vermin and common folk who constitute the majority of the Egyptian population.

Egyptians resisted conscription from the very beginning. They escaped the governor’s soldiers and inflicted injuries upon themselves, sometimes maiming themselves by cutting off their index fingers for instance—in an effort not to get conscripted. But the train of modernity moved ahead to the sound of marches, military music, and the literature of national identity, transforming the army’s place in Egyptian consciousness from an instrument of oppression and domination to the embodiment of an imagined collective identity, eternally monopolizing the definition of patriotism.

Muhammad ‘Ali’s fears came true: the first violent uprising that threatened his dynasty’s reign was led by Ahmad ‘Urabi, an officer in the Egyptian army of peasant (fallah) stock. He rose through the ranks and eventually demanded equality between Egyptian and Turkish colonels. Then, in the 1952 Revolution, the Egyptian peasants in the army once again revolted, ending the reign of Muhammad ‘Ali’s dynasty.

Starting with the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army expanded its conscription efforts. But this time around, military service became a badge of honor, masculinity, nationalism, muhallabiyya, words that form the foundations of the propaganda of Egyptian tyranny and brutality. As such, the gap grew between the conscripted soldiers who came from various social classes and the officers who were picked at the age of 16 to join the Military Academy, isolated from the rest of society and groomed to become the leaders of this army.

In his eloquent book Diaries of an Egyptian Soldier at the Suez Canal Front, Ahmad Hajji describes “the situation during the war before 1973, whereby officers drank beer while soldiers brewed the same tea bag several times.”

The army, which was Muhammad ‘Ali’s instrument for governance and expansion, positioned itself to replace the king, reigning according to the age-old Egyptian traditions dating back to the establishment of the Egyptian kingdom during pharaoh Narmer’s time (3200 BC). The military leaders detached themselves from the people and established their own private housing units, cities, clubs, and hospitals. Using the surplus production from its commercial activities following the 1973 War, the military institution further cemented its grip on power. It continued to expand its use of conscripts as the main labor force in its institutions, paying them extremely low wages and granting them no labor rights. It thus became common to see young soldiers manning military-owned kiosks, selling fish and shrimp in Egyptian markets.

In parallel, beginning in the seventies, recruitment for the Central Security Forces began to target demographics with least access to culture and education, drawing mainly on young men living in abject poverty, many of whom were illiterate. These men spend three years in Central Security Forces camps situated on the border of various Egyptian regions and governorates, ready to suppress any potential protest or revolt –a veritable striking force against their fellow citizens.

This regime, along with the lifestyle that consisted in idolizing the nation-state as defined by the military institution in Egypt since the fifties, was seriously threatened by the January 25 Revolution. This shake up didn’t result in the dismantling of the military regime or of the centrality of the army or, God forbid, of conscription itself. But it did allow us to imagine alternative models of communal life and coexistence based on respect for individual rights and freedoms rather than an admiration for the prestige of the military and state institutions. The January Revolution allowed us to imagine a life without coercion, where Egyptians can enjoy freedom and equality rather than be categorized according to their military ranks.

The military was quick to regain control in Egypt after 2014, but the challenge it faced was that it could no longer employ old nationalist tropes in its discourse. The specter of the ideas and models that the January Revolution inspired continue to disturb the Egyptian government to this day. As for Egypt’s position within the world order, it has been completely altered.

The current Egyptian regime has neither the ease nor the boldness of Gamal Abdel Nasser to be able to create outside enemies like the U.S. and Israel to justify internal oppression. Therefore, the solution was to turn the army against the people, to designate the people as an enemy and as a destructive force that could be exploited to destroy “the Egyptian state.”


In 2013, before becoming president, ‘Abdelfattah al-Sisi told the Egyptian journalist Yasser Rizk that since his youth, he had unexplainable dreams and visions that would eventually come true. He said, “I stopped talking about the dreams and visions in the last seven or eight years, or since 2006. But I always had dreams and visions in which I saw a lot of things that later happened, while no one could explain them 35 years ago.”

Al-Sisi enters a state of revelation and starts recounting some of his dreams to Rizk, “I saw myself in a dream many years ago, 35 years ago, raising a sword on which the phrase ‘La ilah illa Allah’ (‘no god but God’) was written in red.” Rizk interrupts him, “‘No god but God’ in red.” Al-Sisi confirms, “In red, yes.”

As for the second dream, it is more obscure. In the dream there was “an Omega watch on my hand with a green star on it, it was really big. People ask me, ‘what does it mean that you’re the one who has this watch?!’ I told them that this watch is in my name, it’s ‘Omega’ and I’m ‘Abad-fattah’ (‘Eternal-fattah’).[3] The dream combines Omega with worldliness with ‘Abdelfattah.” As for the final dream, it is more honest. He says, “I dreamt that I was speaking with [Anwar] Sadat, and he told me, ‘I knew that I would become President,’ and I told him, ‘And I know that I will become President.’”

These dreams emerged from a leaked audio recording that was never supposed to be published. In the recording, al-Sisi confirms that he is telling Yasser Rizk his visions “off the record.” What struck me in the recording were al-Sisi’s pauses, serenity, and joy in his own self-confidence. Had I dreamt any of these dreams, I thought, I would’ve considered them nightmares. What is exhilarating about seeing yourself holding a sword with a “red” inscription?

In these dreams, al-Sisi appears to be rising above the people, detached from them. As is written in the Arabic lexicon Lisan al-‘Arab: “Everything detached from people [mustawhish ‘an al-nas] is beastly [wahshiyy], and everything that is not close to the people is beastly.”

“Beast” as an epithet (wahsh, pl. wuhush) can also be used positively, as a sign of virility, strength, and bravery. Describing soldiers as “beasts” [wuhush] means that they are capable of terrorizing the enemy. The process of conscription and combat training in Egypt boasts about transforming the recruit into a beast.

It is 2021. Armies around the world compete against one another through brainpower, advanced weaponry, drones, and hacking units able to attack and destroy rival countries’ computer networks. With the exception of Egypt where, every year, the government holds on to what is known as “military parades,” often organized for national occasions or when a new cohort graduates from the Military and Police Academies.

Since the eighties up until now, these parades have looked the same. Young, recently graduated officers showcase their skills such as eating snakes and other wild animals, jumping through rings of fire like circus performers, fist-fighting, and wrestling. In the last couple of years, the Police Academy’s graduation ceremony featured a rather odd performance: over a hundred buffed graduates paraded topless with their bodies drenched in oil, glistening and accentuating their muscles. They were standing on the roofs of SUVs like mummified statues as they passed by the president and generals’ stand. People commented online on photo and video documentation of such performances in various ways, but the recurring word used to describe these men was “beasts” [wuhush]. The army is the factory of men, as they say, the incubator of beasts. It is the machine that you enter as you dream of protecting your country and raising your people’s flag; and after attaining years of success inside the institution and reaching the highest of ranks, your dream becomes a sword dripping with blood—with ‘No god but God’ inscribed on it—and a $50,000 Omega watch.


The kid with a child’s brain was finally moved from our prison, but waves of new military prisoners kept coming in, some of whom were no older than 20 years old. It was customary that when a new group of them entered the cell, we would donate some of what we had—sugar, tea, bread—as extra provisions of sorts since they usually came to prison with neither money nor food.

Given their state of destitution, it is easy for them to get recruited by many of the groups operating in the prison—Islamic groups and terrorist organizations tend to be the quickest. They incorporate them into their groups and share food and drinks with them. They take possession of their minds with “God said x” and “the Prophet said y.” The kids feel appreciated and cared for under the wings of their God-loving brothers who then direct their anger in whatever direction they want.

The crime of avoiding conscription is a blot on each kid’s record after he leaves prison. As a result, he cannot get a job, neither in government nor in the private sector, his record always showing his status as a former felon. Consequently, his only option is to retire to the lowest of social classes, take the path of criminality, or throw himself into the arms of a terrorist organization that extends a helping hand beyond his stay in prison. In this way, if the beast is not produced in the army, he is produced in prison.

In a poor country like Egypt lacking in natural resources, the only source of wealth is the labor force, or human capital. But in the regime of the beast, and under the administration of barbarism, this force must be transformed into little beasts that can be tamed and controlled by a larger beast. To be human is more dangerous than to be a beast.

Translation: Tom Abi Samra

[1]Shafiqa and Mitwali, dir. Ali Badrakhan (Egypt, 1979).

[2]سجلات ديوان المعية السنية، الخطاب رقم 145، من السجل الثاني، من القسم الخامس. الخطاب مؤرخ بـ 25 جمادى الأول/ 1237/ 18 فبراير 1822 (دار الوثائق المصرية).

[3]In Arabic, Abdelfattah (Sisi’s name) and Abad-elfattah sound similar. The latter translates to “Eternal-fattah.”

Seafront Reclamations, Rubble, and Waste: A Metabolic Reading of Lebanese Urbanization

Imad Kaafarani, Biodegradable, Digital illustration. 2021

Since the outbreak of the waste crisis in the wider Beirut area in 2015, the Lebanese government has resorted to the supposedly temporary solution of storing municipal waste in the coastal landfills of Borj Hammoud, Jdeideh, and Costa Brava. Far from being new or temporary, this solution is in fact merely a repetition of decisions implemented during the Civil War, and in a number of Lebanese coastal regions such as Saida and Tripoli, all of which share several characteristics.[1] For instance, reclamations are often assigned to areas allotted for development in urban plans from the 1950s and 1960s, that were never implemented. These reclamations have become an important source for public works and real estate actors who are linked to leading Lebanese politicians, to dramatically increase profits and, in some cases, monopolize the land rent generated by these developments. Finally, the material that gives these embankments their reality erupts in moments of what we might call metabolic disturbances: when a seemingly sudden urban crisis results in an unexpected flow of materials that need to be stored in a particular place (e.g. municipal waste, rubble). These mechanisms of urbanization are a clear illustration of the notion of the Anthropocene, in that they constitute a new geological stratum created by human action.

Urban Metabolism: Consumption, Dejection, Recycling

The notion of urban metabolism enables us to look at urbanization and reclamation projects along the Lebanese coast with a focus on the circulation and transformation of the materials that give the city its consistency. Using a bodily analogy for the city amounts to thinking of the materiality of the city as the food that our ancestors ate, and in turn the manure they fertilized their fields with. This organic cyclical thinking however does not apply to the embankments fed by the rubble of today’s demolished buildings, excavated soils, and municipal trash; as what remains of them is infertile soil drenched in toxic fluids, poisoning maritime fauna and flora along with bathers audacious enough to soak themselves in the sea nearby. I offer here a look at urban political ecology as envisaged by geographer Erik Swyngedouw and his colleagues in the book In the Nature of Cities.[2] Indeed, if the metabolism analogy is to be useful in bringing awareness to the materiality of the flows which constitute the city, we must also recognize the absolutely political nature of these operations of transportation and transformation. As political processes, they participate in the production and reproduction of power relations, in particular through the unequal mechanisms of capital circulation, thus once again posing the question of corruption and its role in the reproduction of the political elite in Lebanon, through the creation of monopolies. Another essential political dimension in this process of transformation concerns the representation of the future of Lebanese society and cities, through what I have called elsewhere a “planning imaginary”.[3] By this I mean a set of norms and representations or visions foregrounded in the development and urban planning policies of the Lebanese capital. Such visions were born from the interplay of major political players and elitist planners often closely connected to them. In particular, these visions define specific territories of intervention and political and social projects for specific places, most often on the coastline. The new coastal contours of the Beirut metropolis can only be understood as the combined product of the construction of this political and financial imaginary, as embodied in the resulting projects, and the materials that give shape to them.

Solidere and its Reclaimed Land

Beirut’s current city center includes the most famous example of an embankment, often identified as BIEL, comprising of more than 60 hectares of parcellated plots and including a conference and exhibition center. This extension on the sea is the result of a series of projects and initiatives dating back to the 1960s, in particular one aimed at gaining seaside land while building a road bridge linking the Ain el Mreisseh corniche to the highway at the eastern exit of Beirut.

The fifteen years of civil war and the metabolic disruption it caused for the storage of domestic waste created the opportunity to fill in the Normandy bay, which became a dumpsite in 1978. Fouad Awada, an urban planner who was, a member of Master Plan for the Development and Urban Planning of the Beirut Metropolitan Region’s team in the 1980s, wrote:

“Those who speak ill of the project remind us that this embankment on the Normandy bay, which spoiled one of the most beautiful sites of Beirut, was not as “spontaneous” and “forced” as it is claimed. The administrator had concocted it since the early 1960s, when he was Director General of Urban Planning, and he dreamed of making a highway pass through the width of the bay, to “close” the ring road around Beirut. The municipality would have received assurances that the embankment would be used for the construction of buildings, whereas the current management intends to turn it into a large central amusement park.”[4]

As early as 1983, the bulldozers of Oger Liban, then put at the disposal of the government free of charge by Rafiq Hariri, demolished buildings and neighborhoods considered irretrievable, most notably the souks of Beirut. This initiative was taken in a hurry, without planning, and provoked protests and indignation by public opinion. It is known that the reconstruction work in the downtown area, from 1991 to 1998, increased demolitions, amounting to a total of 80% of existing buildings in the area. This new rubble, in turn, was dumped onto the Normandy landfill adding considerably to its size.

The Normandy dumping site grew continuously throughout this period. Future plans to construct high-rises on this embankment required powerful reinforcements (a dyke capable of withstanding a tsunami, soil stability for high-rises among others), and therefore an added cost of several hundred million dollars had to be accounted for to clean up the site and provide new backfill materials. As the State could not pay this cost, it offered the land (with a high exploitation ratio) to Solidere as an in-kind contribution. In doing so, it validated the profits the developers and their political backers anticipated, when they started a dump in the sea.

Empty land on the BIEL-Solidere reclamation project in 2015 (Photo Eric Verdeil)

The example of the city center embankment suggests that the first plans of sea reclamation played a role in channelling an unexpected influx of material (waste and rubble) resulting from the destruction of the city center. Subsequently, the financial imagination of the developers saw the landfill as an opportunity for profit. They consequently not only extended the area of the embankments but also imposed reinforcement works, which were at the same time a source of large profits.

The Reclamations of the North Metn

Several plans were proposed for land reclamation on the North Metn coast, where suburbs have been spreading out in disorder since the 1960s. The vision of the urban planner Gabriel Char in 1974 aiming at extending the port of Beirut was never realized, but in 1981, Metn MP Amine Gemayel launched a study carried out by Dar Al-Handasah to create an eight-kilometer stretch from Borj Hammoud to Dbayeh. This was intended to restructure the sprawl of urbanization, which had accelerated with the civil war, by building missing infrastructural elements such as a new maritime road, a wastewater treatment station, commercial and light industrial zones, as well as real-estate and touristic developments around marinas. Once elected president, Gemayel kicked off the project with the support of Rafiq Hariri and that of the entrepreneur Joseph Khoury, who specialized in maritime works and owned the large Nahr-el-Mott quarry which was able to supply the dyking materials. From then onwards, the Borj Hammoud region became a waste material dump, much like the Normandy bay. But Gemayel and Khoury gave priority to the Dbayeh area, which was of a shallower nature and was thus more prone to development. Architect Ricardo Bofill drew up a plan, and works promptly began with the construction of a protective dam. The materials brought in from the quarry turned out insufficient and too expensive, and, with the use of municipal waste spoiling the site, the project came to a halt.

It was then revived in the 1990s. The Dbayeh area was subject to a development plan, the realization of which was once again entrusted to Joseph Khoury who received a third of the land in exchange for his services. Sold to the Emirati operator Majid al Futtaim Group, the development now forms The Waterfront City, a marina associated with a luxury residential complex.

In parallel with the operations of Dbayeh, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) relaunched studies for the realization of a land reclamation embankment between Borj Hammoud and Antelias, under the name of Linord, a real-estate company based on the Solidere model. Fierce competition over who would control the future backfilled lands took place between several potential investors and political players who established themselves during the civil war such as then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, then Interior Minister Michel el-Murr, and other local entrepreneurs. The project also gave rise to various mobilizations of opposition, notably on the part of municipalities such as that of Borj Hammoud, which feared the nuisances of installing a wastewater treatment plant, when there was already a marked increase in the accumulation of waste, north of Borj Hammoud. This “mountain” of waste was the main landfill in the agglomeration from 1991 to 1997 and extended into the sea over a surface area of nearly 40 ha, standing 42 meters high. The chronic combustion of waste spread harmful fumes and a stench over the city. This pile represented a new form of metabolic disruption and therefore an opportunity to create the reclamations of the Linord project. However, their stabilization and reprocessing would increase the costs of the project, particularly due to the proximity of the steep slopes of the submarine canyon forming the bordering segment of the Beirut River. With the downturn of the real-estate market in 1996-97 followed by the arrival of President Lahoud, the project was abandoned. This episode shows that even if metabolic disturbance, i.e. the overflow of rubble and waste, offers opportunities for urban development, their feasibility remains constrained by the real-estate market and the circulation of urban capital.

The empty land on the reclamation project in Dbayeh in 2017 (Photo Eric Verdeil)

Accelerated Urbanization, Frenetic Consumption, Landfill Proliferation

The period from the 1990s to present day in Lebanon has seen unprecedented urban expansion (an increase of 80% between 1994 and 2013) at a rate far exceeding population growth.[5] This urban sprawl goes hand in hand with an intensive use of natural resources for construction materials, largely taken from the mountains around Beirut. Much of the quarrying is illegal but tolerated, both because the construction sector’s contribution to the Lebanese economy is deemed essential, but also because the quarry operators are protected by the corrupt political structure of the country, enabling them to sustain their activities. Increased demolitions of old buildings and excavations of new construction sites generated rubble that had to be disposed of. In 2006, Israeli bombs flattened 220 buildings in a 32-hectare neighbourhood in the heart of the southern suburbs of Beirut. As all destruction is an opportunity for growth within this system, the rubble was deposited on the seafront, in an area called Costa Brava, south of the airport.

In parallel with the spiking rate of construction, Lebanon is also experiencing an exceptional boom in consumerism, causing a sharp increase in the volume of waste. This rise –in inorganic waste in particular– reflects the changing consumption habits of a hyper-urbanized and globalized population divided by growing social inequality: most of the goods are now imported and often manufactured abroad, from food to consumer products. In the region of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, the amount of municipal waste increased by 42% between 1999 and 2013, a rate much higher than the growth of the population. This boom of municipal waste fueled by goods consumption and associated discarding practices resulted in new coastal landfill projects.

The 2015 waste crisis worsened with the lack of a decision on an alternative for the treatment of municipal waste, thus forcing the government to find places to store it while reviving the Linord project which had been dormant for 17 years. In addition to this revival, Environment Minister Chehayeb aimed to create a 33.3 ha landfill between Borj Hammoud and Jdeideh. The soil of this site is composed of a mixture of sand and detritus from the nearby waste mountain which is now ironically considered non-polluting after having spread its pollution in the air, water, and soil for years.[6] Chehayeb, who gave his name to the plan, was also Minister of the Environment in 1997 when he had overseen the closure of the Borj Hammoud dump and the supposedly temporary opening of the Naameh dump. Thus, the 2015 crisis re-excavates the memory of suspended projects.

Landfill in Borj Hammoud (Google Image 2021)

The Chehayeb plan also included turning the Costa Brava site, where rubble was first disposed of in 2006, into another landfill[7]. Nevertheless, and despite the relative remoteness of the site from settlement quarters, the landfill has been strongly contested by the municipalities in the area as well as by environmental groups at large. It should be noted that the emergency construction of these two new landfills has given rise to numerous legal irregularities and exacerbated seawater pollution, as the dumping of waste began before the completion of the protective dykes and the installation of the insulating membranes planned to limit leakages.

Landfills and reclamation works in Costa Brava and Saida in 2021(Google Image)

Analyzing the large backfilling projects in Greater Beirut and Saida makes abundantly clear a strong connection between three impulses. On the one hand, we can see how ideas of modernity and regeneration were instrumental in the conquest of new land on the sea in early urban plans. On the other, we have seen how the anticipation of rising land values drives endeavors to appropriate seaside lands; and finally, how instances of metabolic disruption provide the materials to backfill the sea on the chosen sites.

However, the variable temporalities of these metabolic impulses suggest two conclusive thoughts. A distinction is made between sudden shocks (violent destruction as in the case of the Israeli onslaught of 2006, and the overflow of waste in 2015) as opposed to a constant acceleration of urban construction and consumption generating waste and excavated material flows sustained over the long term. In these two types of temporalities, the intensification of consumption and the rejection of materials (the production of rubble) are directly correlated to the circulation of capital which, in the Lebanese context, comes essentially from abroad (emigration remittances, foreign investments) and directly feeds consumption and real-estate. The transport of rubble resulting from building dismantling and excavation works towards the urban periphery and on the seashore can be observed in many rapidly changing metropolises –particularly in Asia– and constitute a characteristic of the Anthropocene.[8] Cities no longer grow on their ruins, as they had done for centuries, rather they export their ruins to the periphery. In Lebanon, this movement is accelerated by the inability to regulate the flow of waste through policies of volume reduction and recycling. In recent years, ad hoc solutions to the waste crisis have led to the construction of landfills that risk foreclosing other uses for those lands for the foreseeable future. The model of coastal landfill urbanization has only resulted in deserted plateaus and new mountains of rubbish overlooking the sea, wasting natural resources and disregarding basic principles of urbanity, until the foreseeable future.

[1] This text synthesizes and updates a previously published article : Verdeil, É. (2017) ‘Des déchets aux remblais: imaginaire aménageur, corruption et dérèglements métaboliques à Beyrouth’, Jadaliyya,

[2] Heynen, Nik, Maria Kaika, and Erik Swyngedouw, eds. In the nature of cities: urban political ecology and the politics of urban metabolism. Vol. 3. Taylor & Francis, 2006.

[3] Verdeil, Éric. Beyrouth et ses urbanistes : une ville en plans (1946-1975). Beyrouth: Presses de l’IFPO, (2011). Available at:

[4] Awada, Fouad. La gestion des services urbains à Beyrouth pendant la guerre : 1975-1985. Talence: CEGET (Pratiques urbaines (Talence), ISSN 0992-3845 ; 5), p.120, (1998).

[5] Population assessments are unreliable and contradictory in Lebanon, because of the lack of a census. The Central administration for statistics estimated the resident population in the country in 1997 at 4,05 M and at 4,7 M in 2017 (without accounting most of the Syrian refugees massively settled in the country since 2012).

[6] Mansour, Fadi ‘From Trash Dump to Dreamland: An Entangled History of Toxicity and Capital’, Jadaliyya, (2018). Available at:

[7] Unlike other landfill sites, I am not aware of any planned coastal development projects there.

[8] Zalasiewicz, Jan, Waters, Colin and Williams, Mark, ‘City-Strata of the Anthropocene’, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales – English Edition, 72(2), pp. 225–245, (2017). doi: 10.1017/ahsse.2019.11.

Qalaq—Notes from the Making of a Film

Souhaib Ayoub, Untitled, watercolor. 2019

Rasha Salti

Completed in 2018, artist and filmmaker Ghassan Halwani’s film Erased,___ Ascent of the Invisible is heartfelt journey into existential questions, manifest in images, sensations, signs, metaphors, and allegories, on what it means to continue to live with the absence of a person who was kidnapped, to cohabit with the archive of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon, to mark the present-absence and accept it. 

The question of the thousands of persons that disappeared during the Lebanese Civil War is, without a doubt, one of its most poignant and enduring unresolved legacies. Since the Taif Agreement ended the armed conflict, the belligerent militias that transformed into the political protagonists of today’s republic have tried to bury all compromising traces of their crimes, effacing dozens of mass graves and blotting out the missing and disappeared. The tenor of living, of making one’s life, with the presence of a person whose disappearance is unresolved and remains suspended in some form of waiting, is shrouded in qalaq: an inexhaustible and inexorable anxiety. 

Since I first discovered Ghassan Halwani’s film, I have been intrigued by his process. An impressively kaleidoscopic construction and the fruit of long years of meticulous threading of visual and narrative elements, Halwani drafted notes like scenes from events that he had witnessed, situations he observed, and interviews with experts. He also recomposed a multitude of newspaper reports. Here, he discloses elements of his puzzle, putting in dialogue excerpts from three documents drafted by three protagonists. 

Ghassan Halwani, Beirut’s Mass Graves in its Protection of the National Security Outfit, drawing. 2013

Qalaq—Notes from the Making of a Film

The Journalist [J]

We stayed on that hill for three long, hot days.
There was a leak that something was about to happen in the area.
So we rushed to the Beqaa valley as soon as we heard, before anyone had showed up.
We placed our equipment and waited.
There were no clouds that day; it was going to be a hot day in the valley.
We stared at the wildflowers and vegetation. A mild breeze was blowing gently across the wheat field. All was quiet. We could only hear the sound of the breeze and the singing of birds. 
Suddenly the roar of engines broke the quietness. 
A bulldozer was approaching from behind the hill, followed by a convoy of security vehicles.
They drove through and stationed around the noticeable irregularity down the hill. 
They urged us to leave and cordoned off the site.
We were allowed to watch, but only from afar.
They began to talk, pointing to several spots. Then the bulldozer began to move, lifting its metal arm and clawing into the ground, right at the center of where the alteration was. 
The soil hauled by the bulldozer was black. 
A villager standing behind us muttered with surprise that the soil of this land was supposed to be red. Indeed, the hill to our right was rocky but its soil was visibly red. 
The black soil was alien to this land. It must have been brought from elsewhere. 
The bulldozer kept digging and removing the black coating.
Some time later, another bulldozer joined.
We were barely able to discern anything beyond their burly movements; the security forces pushed us further away from the exhumation zone. 
We rushed to the top of the hill in the hopes of getting a better view.
But, from there, the scene looked diminished. 
Men in suits were all over the site. 
The bulldozers were digging deeper now, and the pit was becoming wider. 
From our position, we surmised that the men were carrying the fragments extracted from the ground and placing them inside white bags.
A general stepped out of the cordoned area, we rushed to him, but he immediately said he was not authorized to disclose any information.

The Forensic Expert [FE]

Dear Ghassan, 
This is to confirm the receipt of your message below and the attachment with newspaper synopses. Indeed, I had not received anything before except for your announcement that you were going to put something together. Don’t worry about my time, once I know what you want me to think about, it keeps my brain occupied during the day. I was informed yesterday that the whole Chad project has been postponed for a few days. So I have all the time in the world.
I read the articles that you sent me. It is indeed a very strange and confusing investigation that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. First of all, it is not unusual that what is thought to be a mass grave turns out to simply be a graveyard in the end. That happens, but one expects a background investigation to have been conducted before bringing in the bulldozers. The decision whether the bodies are ancient or not depends on the method that was used to determine the age of the bodies, and a copper bullet by itself is certainly not enough proof.

The Public Prosecutor [PP]

After examination of the case file number 7094/3 issued by the Minister of Justice on the 06/ 12/ 2005 that instructs the conduct of an investigation and address to the public prosecution regarding the several mass graves uncovered in different regions of Lebanon.
In regards to the reports pertaining to the entire findings of the remains unearthed in the Nabi Aziz [sic] hill, located at the periphery of the town of Anjar, after the conclusion of excavations conducted under the supervision of the Public Prosecution Appeals Court in the Beqaa, and the transfer of the remains to the headquarters of Internal Security Forces by the expert medical team and assembling to the extent possible the crushed and scattered skeletons following the proceeding of tests and analysis…
The gender identification lists 18 males, 10 females with one female pregnant.; gender identification was not possible for sixteen of the recovered remains. Dating the burial ranged to fifty years for the most recent, three hundred and fifty to the oldest. No injuries from firearms were observed on any of the remains.
[…] The empty copper bullet casing found among the remains is associated with a French-made pistol, fabricated around 1892, and was used by the French colonial police, the manufacture of the bullets began in 1892 and ended around the beginning of the 1950s.
[…] The fragments of pottery found among the remains were dispatched to the Archeology department at the Lebanese University to determine their archeological value.
[…] The articles of clothing found among the remains include a pair of military pants and a sweater, that don’t seem to have an association with the remains, as no trace of biological substances, fluids or decomposition links them to the remains.


The other thing that confused me was that they performed DNA tests on the bones, even X-ray imagery of each individual fragment. Usually you would do that only when you have a hypothesis of (personal) identity of the persons buried there. You would take the DNA from the bones in order to compare it with the DNA of surviving family members. But as long as you have no idea who the victims are, as long as you have no DNA sample from relatives to compare with, it does not make any sense. The other thing that I noted as strange is the description of the location. If this is a very rocky area, then it would be very bizarre for the perpetrators of the killings to have chosen it to bury/hide bodies. Digging/creating a grave is hard work, and people are lazy; so it would be interesting to investigate why this location was chosen as a hiding place for their crimes. Maybe it was the only place in the area where the burial process could take place in the absence of any witnesses? The same applies to a common graveyard: very rocky soil wouldn’t be the place of choice, I think (unless there are no alternatives in a wide area).


Sinister rumors were already wafting up the hill. Villagers recounted to us stories of what they knew had taken place there. Our job was to parse truth from legend or local lore.
None of us left. For three days, we remained on that hill, watching from afar this seemingly endless operation. 
We became filled with doubt. Staring from so far and for so long, under the blazing sun, sweat dripping into our eyes, obsessed with the quest for Truth, our imagination fired up, the scene became a haze. 
We were hypnotized by the repeated motion of the machines’ mechanical arms and the heavy roar of their engines. Our hallucinations bore the bitter foreboding that something dreadful was about to happen. After waiting for so long, we were weary, our curiosity amplified with avidity and ire. Imaginations running wild, our minds wandered back to the sinister tales we had been told. 
We were journalists obsessed with our mission which, up until then, we had failed to accomplish. 
Frustration, anger, and drive were mounting, we needed resolution! It was clear at that point that whatever had been unearthed could not match the unfettered speculations our imaginations were spinning.
And we wanted to show this event to the world!


The last thing I can comment on right now is actually something that I feel uncomfortable writing because it is so easy to do sitting in my chair behind a computer, but I’ll write it anyhow. It’s not only the lack of previous background research that complicated this exhumation, it is also the way in which it was done. You don’t use bulldozers if you want to preserve evidence or if you want to retrieve complete bodies. These tools are too rough; they are not refined enough and they damage more than they discover. 
My colleagues and I used trowels and brushes and maybe only a small backhoe to remove the top layer of soil (which is not possible in a rocky area). Such an exhumation effort also takes a lot more time than the period described in the articles; it allows for bones not to get mixed up and for bodies not to be disinterred in pieces (unless they were put into the grave as incomplete bodies, which would be very unusual). 
Ghassan, this is my first flow of thoughts, but, to be honest, I am not sure if this is what you are looking for. Don’t hesitate to contact me again. I am very much aware that what I send you now is again the technical side of things and has nothing at all to do with the language used to communicate them.

Ghassan Halwani, The Slope – Beqaa Valley, drawing. 2014


The diversity in age and gender of the remains attests that the Nabi Aziz [sic] hill was used as a graveyard starting from three-hundred and fifty years ago until fifty years ago.
In addition, it is noteworthy that none of the families of the disappeared since the beginning of the painful events in 1975, have reported a pregnant woman, or any woman or child.
The empty copper bullet casing associated with a French-made pistol that dates to 1892, corroborates the conclusions of the lab tests that the bodies were buried as recently as fifty-ears and beginning three-hundred and fifty years ago. Moreover, the items of clothing found with the remains bear no association with the bodies that were buried without clothing, shrouded in the Muslim tradition of burial.
The testimony of the first witness, Qassem Abdel-Ghani al-Khatib, born in 1928 and resident of Majdal Anjar, attests that his father had been the custodian the Nabi Aziz [sic] shrine, a responsibility he inherited from him, and that several members of his family were buried in the Nabi Aziz [sic] hill, and that the Ottoman governor Rushdi Bey owned a house in the area and was buried there until his remains were transferred to Turkey.
The testimony of the second witness, Mohamad Ali Hammoud, born in 1925 and resident of Majdal Anjar, attests that the hill of Nabi Aziz [sic] was used as a cemetery for Turkish soldiers, the graves’ markings were visible until the arrival of Armenians to the town of Majdal Anjar, however the residents continued to use the site as a cemetery, and that his own father-in-law, who was Turkish, was buried there.
The testimony of the third witness, Youssef Mohamad Hamzah, born in 1943 and resident of Majdal Anjar, attests that Palestinians occupied the houses built by the French colonial mandate administrators in 1948 and that they buried their dead in the Nabi Aziz hill until they left in 1956.
In conclusion, the remains unearthed from the hill near the Nabi Aziz [sic] shrine, in the town of Majdal Anjar in the Beqaa, belong to people of the Muslim faith who lived in the area and who buried there their dead, embryos, babies, pregnant women, young boys, young girls, adult men, adult women, elderly men and elderly women since the beginning of the seventeenth century until the middle of the twentieth century. None of the remains were buried after 1950, and no proof of a mass grave was found. For all these reasons, the case must be filed for the absence of a criminal offense.
Accordingly, we decree to archive the file because of the absence of a criminal offense.

Beirut 6/6/2006
General Prosecutor at the Court of Cassation
Saïd Mirza


Suddenly the site was deserted! The two pits were abandoned for our unguarded discovery!
At first we were nervous; none of us moved. Finally, like dogs left to fast for three whole days, we rushed and invaded the site. We became the scene. 
Those of us who arrived first jumped inside the pit, trampling over every inch of it. There were leftovers. Bones! We started collecting each fragment. We dug with our bare hands, pulling more bones out of the ground. Frenzy and chaos. Some broke the bones with their hands to make sure they were bones…and there was a jaw, with a single tooth left hanging. This piece specifically, for some reason, made us suddenly realize that we were messing with the remains of people inside a mass grave. 
We collected the bones we found into a white bag and begged a villager to hand them over to the authorities, if they were to show up again. 
Some of our colleagues who arrived later were upset with our action as they had not captured a single shot of the scene. They jumped inside the pit, exhumed some more bones, deployed them on the black soil, shot however many photos they needed, and walked away. The bones were left there the way the journalists had set them up.


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


Julian Christopher pinged you:                                                                   3m ago

You should join this room. I am talking with Chora Nerval, Gerard Labrunie, and 6 others about “Techniques for Eliminating Breath from Talk Radio”

I am dead, dear listener. This is not a recording. This is not a metaphor. This is not a lie.

I am dead, dear listener, and we are beyond the present.


It happened at border control. It must have been then, unless it started long before I even left. Maybe they slipped something in the food while I was on the inside, and it just took a long time to take effect? That’s probably it. Maybe it couldn’t really militate until we were in the air. Maybe then it’s reversible.

I suppose for the time-being, it doesn’t matter how it happened, or when, just that it did, unless I’m completely fucked up right now. I can’t be. It doesn’t matter.

Okay. Retrace my steps. The taxi driver pulls up to the Beirut Memorial Airport. I get out and grab my suitcase. While I’m paying, someone spits in my face. I look up and see him looking back while walking away with another couple of men. He then asks “what the fuck are you looking at?” adding emphasis to the end of his words so that the feminine suffixes, which are supposed to offend me, carry the burden of his words. He comes to a halt like he’s actually waiting for an answer. Fuck it; I’m getting out, I say to myself, though part of me wants to breach his mouth, feel his larynx between my fingers, wrench it out with a manicured fist, and sing into his flayed neck. I know better than to start anything. No one would help anyway. It is not worth it. Nothing is. Everything means nothing. I look away, pick up my suitcase, and head towards the toilets to wash my face.

That was the last I remember seeing myself, staring back from the bathroom mirror. Look, it’s not like someone else was in there. My eyes just couldn’t focus clearly. I looked older, not like I was aging, just duller. Still though, it was me, no doubt about it, I think. I look like her. What was her name, my mother? The toilets are flooding.
“Bienvenue à l’aéroport mémorial de Beyrouth”


By the time she got to her seat on the flight, she was exhausted. The small air vents in the ceiling whispered shhh continuously, like a mother consoling a choleric child. The turbine engine was a dense milky vapor, languidly thickening below her, a smoky mattress scooping her up, cradling her. The sound moved through her body, fattening her eyelids with bass, stroking her behind her earlobes down to her vocal chords, singing her into the belly of a star, a luth constellé, beyond charactery. “In that long kiss she nearly lost her breath.”

I came to as the captain spoke through the raspy speakers, instructing people to look outside the windows on the right side of the aircraft for an aerial view of Beirut.

I am dead, dear listener, and we are beyond the present.


Something was off. My entire row was staring at me. I told myself I was just being paranoid. No one on the flight was Lebanese. I was sitting by the window after all, and they’d just been prompted to look out.

But then I looked over to my left, and both the men sitting next to me swiftly turned their faces away. I couldn’t tell if it was the kind of deflection that was intended to avert shame, like when people at the beach look away as their companions disrobe, even though they are about to be half naked together for the rest of the day, or if it was the kind of deflection meant to alleviate fear, like the way I turned my eyes away earlier outside the airport to avoid engaging a potential aggressor. Maybe it was something in between, the way hardened New Yorkers in subway stations quickly recalibrate their gaze when the beggar they’ve been staring at catches their eye. I imagine in that moment a New Yorker looks away twice with a single gesture. The first is to avoid shame, the embarrassment of their own survival, and the knowledge that it has come at the expense of the beggar’s, the shame of being a disappointment, not just to the beggar when they inevitably ask for money, but to the version of herself she internalizes as a subjectivity, righteous, and right. The second is to avoid looking the basilisk in the eye, the horror of potentially catching abject poverty by trying to alleviate it. It is after all a question of relationality. I suppose, maybe, it would be irrelevant, and the distinction is rendered arbitrary, if fear is just shame protracted outwards. “The working class becomes invisible under late stage capitalism” or something of the sort. Was that Habermas? Regardless, whichever fucker said it was wrong. The world sees them, they just don’t look at them long enough to become them. Insert metaphor about wearing your own oxygen mask before strangling your mother. Visibility and acknowledgement are not the same.

Le sausage en procès:

Seconds later, I could feel the searing heat of someone’s gaze again, and I turned to see the person to my left staring at my crotch from the corner of their eye. I stared back, waiting for them to notice, but they didn’t notice, until I moved my legs, noticing an unfamiliar heaviness in my pelvis. That’s when they looked up, and we locked eyes for just a split second, during which, and I know this sounds insane, but I swear I was inside their body, looking at mine. That’s when I noticed it. My hands were a few shades darker, more vascular, and they had hair on them. I raised them up to examine them more closely, and there were calluses on the inside of my palms like the kind one gets from manual labor. I turned them around to inspect the outsides, and my right hand grazed against something where there normally would’ve been air. It was a beard.

Then as soon as they looked away I was back in my window seat, staring at my own crotch.

I am in this skin again looking down.
Why is there a cock in my pants?
I am in their skin again looking at my crotch.
How is any of this happening?
I am the flight attendant offering refreshments.
I want to ask “coffee or tea” but I forget the words.

I will be the girl in seat 24 D staring at the flight attendant who will have been transfixed in the middle of the aisle, with her mouth agape as she will stare out the window to her left at the black sun, her arms outstretched as the pitchers of coffee and tea will pour out onto the passengers at her sides.

I was in a seat again. I wanted to sigh in relief, but piping hot tea was pouring onto my lap. I wanted to scream in pain and I wanted more pain. I tried to scream but every time I opened my mouth the sound came to me from across the cabin: a sonorous turbine engine shredding through the air.

I is the bar cart rolling down the aisle on the right side of the plane crashing into the wall separating economy from premium.

He am in the first class bathroom. The toilets are flooding. Some stranger is fucking me. What was her name again, my mother?

I stand up in the aisle with a plastic knife in my hand, and pull my pants down ready to cut, should I find anything objectionable, but it was and it wasn’t, and where there would have been there was no longer, and in place of the un-ownable there was only thrust.

I am the engine, setting myself on fire. I contain plenitude.

How is this even happening.

She am in the first class bathroom fucking a stranger. I disappear myself inside him. We are both trying to return. There is only thrust. We are in C major.

The leather seats are sprouting hair. Goosebumps. Goosebumps.

I will orphan myself to be clean.

I am the baby in the exit aisle screaming in the bassinet for mommy to take me back. I open my mouth to scream but my voice comes out from the speakers. There is no need to scream anymore. Disinherit me as you will.

I will learn your name when I leave you.

Soon, I will shit you out, and there will be no need for metaphor.

The engine is on fire. She is everybody on the flight opening our mouths and chanting engine sounds. There is only sound, almost.

This is not a lie. Dear listener this is happening live. Call now and tell me what you think. This is not a recording. Call now and let mama make it okay. That’s right.

I am dead. I am going to die. Do you hear me laugh when I say this? Or am I crying. I am going to die. Are you close?

The plane is spinning in the sky. The plane is the sky. There is no sky. There is no air. There is no breath. It will be over soon. We are beyond the present. My voice is flooding the toilets. There are no words left. There is only sound.

He is the plane spinning out of control. I is gravity pulling a burning plane into a port stacked with explosives. She will orphan myself to be whole. I will orphan himself to be whole. He am dead.

He                                                       curtain make

hair hair hair wig hair wig wig hair hair

                        96170143512 dial tone

stab crotch. Stab crotch make right.  Make 1-2


    Tritone from 5

    Land on 4 major 7

    Back to 1 major 7 then apply dominant.

The toilets have flooded. Someone has wound the piano strings so tight they snap every time I touch my keys. I will orphan an entire generation, that they may never know what you did to them.

Papa can I return to your body? Can I sing into your neck? Will you wash my body and put me in the ground? Will you make me clean? Thakla I will forget your name when I orphan myself. Thakla, did you hear the planes before the explosion? Do you hear me? I am dead. This is not a metaphor. Welcome to New York.

On Rubble and Buried Meaning

Imad Kaafarani, Where Is It? Digital illustration, 2021.

“Tread softly;
For I believe the crust of this earth
Is nothing but the crumbled dust of these bodies
It is disgraceful of us, regardless of time,
To desecrate our fathers and forefathers”

-Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī [1]

There is no clear and documented historical context for the reasons that prompted al-Maʿarrī to write these verses. However, in the context of this text, the “crust” he refers to is central to the concept of ​​human burial as the skin that envelops the bodies of humans and animals alike. One cannot know for sure if this “crust” is inanimate or whether it is altogether intangible. Perhaps, it is both at once. One also wonders whether al-Maʿarrī’s prompt to tread softly was intended for the bodies of his forefathers or their legacy. Perhaps here again, it is both at once.

By attributing his human existence and immortality after death to the notion of the crust of the earth as an envelope and the act of burying, Al-Maʿarrī weighs not only on his ancestors, but also on his postmortal self. The time intervals here seem condensed into one: the poet views himself and his demise as part of the same accumulated crust through which he sees his ancestors. It is as if this backfill, or rather the crust it creates, undermines the meaning of time, permeating across the past, present, and future. It moves from one site to another, from one body to another –it does not wane.

This text focuses on amalgamating acts of backfilling, be they human remnants or architectural and urban rubble. Situating itself at the intersection of the tangible and the intangible, it discusses the ways in which this multifaceted concept of rubble can be employed as a tool to reclaim the right to the city[2] and to memory, through political activity, protest, and even literary production and consumption. Since language, like rubble, can build and be destroyed, one cannot compare the destruction of the urban fabric and the repression of memory without addressing the words employed in that process.

In this text, I discuss Al-Maʿarrī’s notion of backfilling along three stages. The first stage encompasses a better understanding of the buried rubble at the level of both the individual and collective unconscious. Seen as a primary catalyst of collective consciousness, this rubble can generate a political positioning by activating the intellectual and sensorial capacities necessary to the creative processes of meaning-making.

This generative ability is rooted in connecting with the historical realities of the city through a linguistic framework, given that self-discovery is ontological to the creation of language. In this way, a closer inspection of rubble can be a potent instigator for rebellion against the urban, political, social, and intellectual realities we are living. I refer to this first stage as buried rubble. The second stage, which I will call exposed rubble, brings an empirical or rather sensorial understanding of rubble and the various uses of its backfilling. A final stage assimilates these observations and employs them in the production of meaning and knowledge. Let us call this stage functional rubble. Taken together, these 3 stages –buried rubble, exposed rubble, and functional rubble– are an attempt to synthesize a theoretical and practical framework through which acts of backfilling can be confronted.

The Symbolism of Rubble: Perpetual Immortality and the Collective Unconscious

The cemeteries are far, sometimes close. Once there, we walk over the bodies of our ancestors, lying in the ground beneath us; a tombstone sits above, bearing the name of the dead. In the cemeteries, we mourn the departed and weep over the name the tombstone bears. In the cemeteries, we weep for the stone as well, the bones petrifying and fusing with it. The stone becomes an extension of our bodies, and we do hers.

 “When we dream of the house we were born in, in the utmost depths of revery, we participate in this original warmth, in this well-tempered matter of the material paradise.”[3] In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard defines the primary sensory material as being closely related to the primary non-sensory substance, “the original warmth”. We can thus conclude that the first backfill (at the level of the built fabric) lies at the center of the second (at the level of memory), and vice versa. That is, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two forms of rubble\backfilling in that the absence of either affects the other and modifies the foundations of its existence.

The reality of backfilling which startled Al-Maʿarrī is reflected in urban and architectural rubble, where it is impossible to separate between the intangible backfill of narratives, and the tangible one of buildings and the city. In spite of the symbiotic relationship that ties the two, rubble in its intangible form remains buried until it is confronted with its tangible counterpart; narratives thus remain embedded in memory until they are resurrected in the senses. The process is triggered by a sensorial confrontation of the rubble in familiar contexts, in spaces one has inhabited or can relate to, be they a partly destroyed house or architectural ruins.

Backfilling has two realities: the first is its lingering and overwhelming existence, where its dismantling is often more difficult than its creation. And the second is that it is both a byproduct and an extension of human intervention.

Rubble appears to be a constantly changing tool, one that reminds us of the ephemerality of the urban while maintaining the possibility of its manifestation in other forms beyond the apparent mortality of architecture. Constantly shifting paths that extend over many years, rubble is multifaceted. Despite its basis in ancient history, rubble was made an essential and present element in our contemporary world since the Industrial Revolution. The rubble stemming from the modern era is one of distinct nature, characteristics and meanings, the rubble discussed here specifically belongs to the modern age. I will focus on the backfill stemming from the modern era, one of distinct nature, characteristics, and meaning.

Industrial waste –such as concrete, glass, and domestic refuse– is no less an extension of humans than discarded bones and bodies. In fact, the narrative of rubble can be linked to the creation of Adam, the first human, out of dust. The name Adam is derived from Adeem, signifying the crust of the earth in semitic languages. This originary link between discarded refuse and the human body, is reflected in the fact that the notion of ​​defecation, or production of human waste, and its distribution to unknown places, is inscribed in the human psyche from childhood. A child reads the refuse they produce –that is their excretion–  as waste leaving the body, quickly disappearing from sight. The mystery surrounding this process is ingrained in the individual mind, finding its way into the collective subconscious. Our ignorance of the fate of the backfill we collectively experience is similar to that of waste we physically produce: it is assumed to disappear from sight the moment it emerges. This is why it can be called buried rubble.

This particular backfill has a special chronological narrative. One questions whether this form of rubble completely breaks down, in all its dimensions, the moment it disappears from sight; whether its rapid perceived dissolution necessarily implies a similar fate for its repercussions. In the context of architecture and the city, how do we explain the enduring memory of buried architectural rubble, the persistent memory of a house that was torn down, or a room that is no longer there? Usually the opposite is true: It is the quick disappearance of the architectural backfill/rubble that increases the value of the immortality of memory. Therefore, we need an exposed rubble which reveals the buried one.

Rubble as Political Tool

The Industrial Revolution brought about a significant acceleration in urban decay. We thus cannot compare the rubble generated by Modern buildings[4] with that of other buildings, because its historical characteristic is inseparable from its nature.

Describing Beirut, Dean Sharp observes tangible urban changes: “If you look today at the skyline of downtowns throughout the Middle East and beyond, the joint-stock corporation has transformed the urban landscape.”[5]

Based on this, along with the painful fact that corporations select the oldest, most immortal cities, only to convert them into clusters of skyscrapers, we can assert that reconstruction projects in these cities have contributed to the commodification of backfill. The rubble belonging to the reconstruction projects of the modern era is shaped in a purely capitalist mold.

To understand the policies employed by authorities and private companies to divert and often block the paths of the rubble they generate, one must revisit the three stages of backfilling: buried, exposed, and functional rubble. Authorities select urban spaces overflowing with historical, cultural, and architectural heritage, in order to destroy them. Consequently, the transformation of a buried backfill into an exposed backfill becomes almost impossible, leaving the memory buried without any material trace of it in the city. This is where the importance of reappropriating the right to the city and its memory becomes abundantly clear.

One way to fight this capitalist process is by publicly insisting that rubble derived from systematic destruction has a public function, and thus to refuse the commodification of rubble. The first part of this equation requires that we recognize that the rubble resulting from demolition and reconstruction is part of the tools and weapons we use in reclaiming the city.

On the night of October 17, 2019, Lebanon witnessed a widespread uprising, with the largest protests beginning in downtown Beirut, an area at the center of post-war reconstruction projects, which has, due to extensive backfilling, become foreign to its own inhabitants.[6] With its vast open piazzas atop buried histories, or rather buried memories, downtown Beirut is fertile ground for protests and confrontations with the security apparatuses of the system. Indeed, the urban clarity of these spaces –between backfilling and construction– is an ideal starting point for the act of rebellion.

The protests sometimes escalated into acts of vandalism aimed at storefronts and facades of luxury high rise buildings, symbols of the speculative economies that had so spectacularly come to a crash. Though this incited harsh criticism – largely from guardians of the system attempting to hold onto the crumbling symbols of power, it is important to note that demonstrators did not raid heritage buildings and sites, which have been intentionally backfilled and deliberately neglected by the government. Not only had the government commodified these semi-decrepit buildings and sites, it had also commodified their debris, leaving their structures dilapidated.

During the events of October 17, people went into the Grand Théâtre, and the Beirut City Center complex (known locally as “the Egg”), both buildings closed off to the public and neglected by the state for many years. It was as if the demonstrators, in their reducing –however mildly– of Solidere’s buildings into rubble, were aware of the importance of collective memory and the role of the hegemonic laws of the state in transforming the public sphere into rubble.

“It will all be in ruins”, a spray-painted statement covered the walls of the downtown, announcing a guiding equation in the process of reclaiming the city: using primitive tools to break down and convert Solidere’s “violent” buildings[7] into new rubble often repurposed as projectiles to fight police repression, all the while steering clear of heritage buildings. In doing so, protesters could begin to practice their right to the city in several forms and on multiple levels, perhaps the most prominent being stripping off the cladding of these cannibalistic buildings to expose the contents of their guts. This implies a clear decision to first convert “violent” architecture into rubble, followed by another decision to politically employ this backfill. French theorist Michel de Certeau described the present conjuncture as being “marked by a contradiction between the collective mode of administration and an individual mode of re-appropriation”[8]. In the particular case of the protests in Beirut, related to the activation of destruction in order to use commodified rubble as a means of defense and expression, these actions emerge as the most prominent patterns of collective re-appropriation in the face of a top-down administration of space.

Paving the Sea – Paving Language

In his 2011 novel “Paving the Sea”, Rashid al-Daif wrote:[9]

“Though, Faris Hashem’s path diverged from his lifelong friend Jurji Zaydan’s, they nonetheless decided to travel together with their colleague Amin Fleihan on the same day, and on the same ship to Alexandria … They were three young men from the American University [of Beirut]. None of them had ever traveled by sea.

In fact, most of them were seeing the sea for the first time; each joked about it in his own way, one of them wishing the sea were a plain to harvest potatoes…”[10] Al Daif continues to describe the varying perceptions of the sea: “Taken by the vastness of the sea, the villagers thought it impossible to “pave” it. According to Jurji Zaydan, countryside dwellers came up with the expression “to pave the sea”, to imply  the subject is not up to the challenge.”

The rubble described by Al-Daif reflects the barbarity of the idea of ​​paving or backfilling the sea, an act seen, at the time, as a great challenge. And so it must remain, because it is not compatible with human nature and urban growth.

The moment “paving the sea” became a possibility and the challenge became a reality was the moment brutality was born. Al-Daif links impossible ideas to impossible linguistic structures: the notion of “paving the sea”, leads the protagonists of the novel to an in-depth discussion about the current state  of the Arabic language.

Within my suggested structure of three forms of rubble/backfill, paving the sea is a barbaric act of functional backfilling with the ability to destroy everything in this trilogy, down to language itself. Had the sea been paved in the novel, would the saying “paving the sea” have appeared as a new linguistic structure? It should be clear by now that some brutal types of backfilling are an obstacle to linguistic creativity, blocking access to meaning, burying it under the paving of the sea.

Sometimes it is the sea that paves the city and swallows it. Though this image may seem brutal, it is in fact a return of rubble to its rightful place. A brutal and unnatural act, such as “paving the sea” traumatizes the unconscious mind.

In his novel “Berytus: An Underground City,” Rabih Jaber tells the story of a security guard at the Egg Building who descends into an underground world  and discovers an altogether other Beirut underneath the current one.[11] The guard tries to draw a map of Beirut in order not to lose his memory of the city, pointing to the importance of uncovering the buried city through both cartography and narration.

It did not occur to the guard to speak to the residents of buried Beirut about the city through oral narration, as if language was also non-existent in the subterranean city he had discovered. Here, once again, the relationship between urban rubble and language emerges, as if the rubble distorts the language, thereby disconnecting all meanings.

The Literature of the City

“As if the sea drowned the entire commercial center in this terrible storm, and besieged me all by myself in the “City Palace” cinema, which stands here on its own, unrestored since the time of its ruination.”[12]

Trauma and paving the sea go hand in hand. On the beach, children know that the sea remains the master of space even if they were to throw sand into it. They also know that if they build sand castles, the waves will eventually swallow them whole. The child knows that the sea cannot be backfilled, yet paving the sea seems to be an essential part of the formation of the individual subject and the collective trauma that revolves around our spatial relation to cities.

Systematic demolition is also an essential part of these successive traumas; by transforming the city into backfilled rubble, trauma remains confined by its traumatized owners. Rabih Jaber’s spatiotemporal choice comes as a convergence between a historically and politically buried city, the post-war commercial center, and the reconstruction policies imposed on the city. It is also a convergence between the City Center building and the sea avenging its own backfilling by burying the city in turn.

The two novels then seem to be possible translations of a political act that consists in exercising one’s right to reclaim urban rubble, as a model for archiving the city and preserving its memory.

This is the potential of linking linguistic and urban rubble, the sensory and the non-sensory, in a narrative that unfolds identity and place as realities lived in urban and literary imaginaries.

Translation: Sassine Kawzalli and Jana Nakhal.

[1]  “خَفّفِ الوَطْء ما أظُنّ أدِيمَ الـ      أرْضِ إلاّ مِنْ هَذِهِ الأجْسادِ

وقَبيحٌ بنَا وإنْ قَدُمَ العَهْـ                   ـدُ هَوَانُ الآبَاءِ والأجْدادِ”

 Translated by Sassine Kawzalli and Jana Nakhal.

Abū al-ʿAlāʾ Amad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sulaymān al-Tanūkhī al-Maʿarrī, 973 – 1057 AD, was a thinker and poet from the Abbasid era.

[2] “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
David, Harvey. “The right to the city.” New Left Review 53 (2008): 23-40

[3] Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press, 1994.P. 7.

[4] By modern architecture, I mean the late nineteenth century architecture, created as a reaction to the previous architectural types. Modern architecture was influenced by the industrial revolution at the level of construction processes and newly used tools, like concrete and glass. Modern architecture adopts the concept of architecture as function, as well as other concepts which led to making buildings belonging to the modern era more prone to decay, than constructions from other eras.

[5] Sharp, Deen Shariff. Corporate Urbanization: Between the Future and Survival in Lebanon. A dissertation submitted to the Graduate Faculty in Earth and Environmental Sciences in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, The City University of New York. 2018. p.5

[6] The events of October 17, 2019 are a series of demonstrations and included several confrontations between protesters and the Lebanese security forces. These events spanned from 2019 to 2020.

[7] By “violent” buildings I mean the buildings erected on heritage and archaeological sites or those which were deliberately demolished.

[8] De Certeau, Michel. The practice of everyday life. Translated by Steven Rendall from French to English. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1984. P97

[9] Rashid Al-Daif is a Lebanese novelist, poet, and academic, born in 1945

[10] Translated by Sassine Kawzalli and Jana Nakhal

[11] Rabih Jaber, Lebanese novelist and journalist, born in 1972

[12]  جابر، ربيع. بيريتوس مدينة تحت الأرض. ص 20

Punctuating Anxiety

Souhaib Ayoub, Untitled, watercolor. 2019

First off, an admission: The process of writing this has, like most writing, spawned its own little qalaq storm. Least of all because, as I reflect on the topic of anxiety, I cannot help but anxiously wonder whether there is any point to writing on historical cultural anxiety at a moment when the present itself is such an anxious one.

I am a literary scholar. I read, I overthink what I read, and then I write about it. Currently, I am writing a book on –what else– anxiety. Specifically, a particular cultural anxiety over emigration that has cohabited with and within Lebanese national culture –such as it is, and whatever that means, since the late nineteenth century. It bubbles up everywhere, this anxiety, haunting novels and poems and texts, suffusing them with florid and overwrought language about mothers weeping for absent children, sons wailing in exile, and villages bereft of their young (eerily familiar, right?). A few years ago, testing my hypothesis about migration being all-pervasive in Lebanese cultural texts, I decided to explore the archive of the satirical caricature magazine Ad-Dabbour, founded in 1922 by Youssef Moukarzel and still extant today on I was curious about what kinds of images these men in the 1920s, the magazine’s founding decade, would have used to describe and depict migration from Lebanon. The images I discuss here are ones that didn’t really fit what I was looking for at the time but that I documented and kept because they drew me in.

I read somewhere that one of the symptoms of anxiety is an inability to imagine the future; as I think about these old caricatures, I wonder: is it I who is anxious, thinking in circularities about how the present is nothing but the endless repetition of the past, an eternal recurrence of the same? Or is it these texts and their creators? Of course, the answer could –and probably is– both, although only one of us is alive and willing to admit to this anxiety.

To experience qalaq in Arabic is to be unsettled, restless, unable to remain in one place, the dictionary tells me. I think about migration and the unsettledness it literally leaves in its wake as people move from one place to another. I think of my own state, suspended like so many before me (but with better technology) between a Lebanon growing increasingly troubling and a US that I never really thought of as permanent in any way. What will my future, our future look like? As I continue to work on this project that draws out early responses to social phenomena we still experience today, and as the double helices of my work and my lived experiences twine ever tighter together, I am drawn to and also repelled by an earlier imagined future: the future uneasily portrayed by the editors of the satirical ad-Dabbour. Their fearfulness perhaps stemmed not from an inability to imagine a future, but rather being unable to imagine one that was bountiful and positive; not out of a lack of imagination but out of a lack of confidence in what was to come. It is in the bleakness of this realization that I recognize my own anxiety, even as I recoil and reject the implications of that recognition. Perhaps this is all we have to work with during these moments, the knowledge and desire not to reproduce the same horrible reactions as our predecessors even as we are somehow condemned to similar experiences of history.

As those of us who regularly experience anxiety know, qalaq produces its own grammar. It is full of rhetorical starts and devoid of stops; it asks questions that cannot be answered, projecting the unknown into the unknowable future. It lacks punctuation, question marks replaced by ellipses, sentences unanswered, unanswerable, suspended in time and on the space of the page without closure. There is never any closure with anxiety.

In 1927, much like today, and much like at various moments since, the Lebanese mainstream media was preoccupied with the question of Lebaneseness: What would it mean? Would it even matter, given the jarring economic and political reality of a postwar not-yet-nation state? Who would/could be counted –and who was to be excluded? Ad-Dabbour ran a front page editorial, below:

Immigrant Nationality, June 6, 1927, p. 1. Copyright Ad-Dabbour Magazine.

I find many things intriguing and exasperating about this image and the accompanying caption. Staged as a conversation between the deputy French High Commissioner Monsieur Soloumiac and a Sheikh Youssef (likely member of the Council of Elders Youssef Istfan), the caricature depicts them opening a door to a room labelled al-watan (the nation). But this label seems to be for the benefit of Soloumiac, Youssef, and the rest of us on the inside of this room, not the travelers carrying bundles on their shoulders trying to get in. Why would someone want to label the inside of their metaphorical house/nation, and not the outside? Do they not know where they are living? Do they constantly need to be reminded of the fact that they live there? These puzzling questions only raise further ones. The conversation the two men are having while Sheikh Youssef wedges the “door of citizenship” open is tense. Soloumiac, dressed in European attire, begs the Sheikh to shut the door on the issue of citizenship. Youssef, drawn in careful detail by the caricaturist Tabbara, looks at Soloumiac with indignation as he asks, “why? Aren’t our emigrants more entitled to Lebanon than those -ian people?” The casual racism of the joke against Armenian refugees makes me cringe every time I read it. To be honest, the first time I read it, I hadn’t even known that the nationalization of Armenian refugees had been a big deal (as the children of today may not know in a few decades’ time that, before Syrians became the imagined refugee bugaboo of choice for Lebanon’s terrible political class, Palestinians had held that unfortunate position for decades, and continue to live as second class citizens in Lebanon’s camps). The visuals of the caricature and its punchline seem to suggest that we are to identify with Sheikh Youssef, familiar in name and fez. He, like contemporary politicians’ twitter accounts, holds the voice of moral authority confronting the foreign agent who has let those dastardly Armenians in and is keeping the rightful citizens of the homeland out. The bodies of the two men block each other warily, anxiously, and the rhetorical questions – even though they are unaccompanied by interrogation marks – of the horridly racist punchline emanate the same anxiety, questions dropped into a crevasse where they have remained for 90 years. Is there any rhetorical device more anxious than a question whose answer never comes?

Rhetorical statements pepper the “humor” in ad-Dabbour, the provocation being the question that awaits no answer, the rhetorical flourish being that of course the intended audience of the gag will know how to respond properly, in unison. It is a cowardly device that oozes onto the page, such as in the cartoon where a European woman is asking a Lebanese woman what she hopes for her children (again, the future beckons!).

Mothers’ Ambitions, October 29, 1928, p. 16. Copyright Ad-Dabbour Magazine.

The title, “Mothers’ Ambitions”, with the Arabic root ṭ-m-‘ (طمع) signifying greed embedded into maṭāmiʿ (مطامع), suggests that this aspiring local symbol of fecundity is greedy. Her avarice extends onto her children, one of whom she hopes will become a lawyer, another an engineer, a third a doctor, a fourth a journalist, etc. When the judgy (and implicitly less child-laden?) European woman asks which of her children will be farmers; the punchline is “what are the Armenians doing here, chez nous?” Rhetorical ellipses replace a question mark, but quite like the Sheikh’s question on top, the target is clear: the Armenians, outsiders who should be grateful to be able to do menial labor for Madame’s children.

Today’s Problems, unknown issue. Copyright Ad-Dabbour Magazine.
The Masculine Woman, May 23, 1927, p. 20. Copyright Ad-Dabbour Magazine.

Like many chauvinist and racist people and their publications, ad-Dabbour never ceased to punch down at the vulnerable or the different. It reserves a particular ire for modern women. If the dog hadn’t lifted the tablecloth, we wouldn’t have been able to tell Farfour from Farfoura, the caricature of “today’s problems” tells us. Another of the “masculine woman” shows a breastfeeding lady in menswear, cane and gloves on either side, before – can you believe it?! – she goes off to work in the morning. The seething rage and incomprehension do not have to be expressed –all that needs to happen is for the image to speak for itself. Image and title are enough to capture the indignation at the changing times and trends (although some things, of course, have not changed: this woman and her daughters remain lesser citizens in the eyes of the patriarchal state to this day, for example).

I think about these cartoons when I think of cultural anxiety because they are an example of the way that humor can create false, complacent, and fragile communities by deflecting attention and projecting it onto the bodies of the most vulnerable. These images tell us something about how a conservative group of men negotiated their feelings about their world slipping away from them by making fun of the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable: refugees, women, refugee women. Their descendants, unfortunately, also still remain with us today, armed with social media platforms, access to TV stations and followers who will listen and indulge their awful rhetoric.

The Economic Crisis, September 17, 1928, p. 1. Copyright Ad-Dabbour Magazine.

Because of its depiction of the port, and because almost everyone I know who is able to has left or is thinking of leaving, a final pair of ellipses comes to mind, the cover image of an issue on economic crisis, again from the late 1920s. It is perhaps the one exception to the humor of punching down that I found interesting enough to keep from all those years ago, but it is no less anxious, barely containing its rhetorical anxiety. As bowed men in fezzes file out of Beirut port walking towards a ship waiting to take them away, other bowed men carry barrels of gasoline on their backs as they unload them. The title of the cover page is “the economic crisis”, again with no sign of rhetorical containment in the ellipses that end the sentence. And the tragicomic punchline, equally elliptical, equally anxious, equally unending: “we export men and we import cars, and the customs office wins the jackpot…”

…And then I think of what could have been had the ellipses been an exclamation point, the anxiety and helplessness and unknowability diverted into righteous anger that punctuated the moment and refused to let it slip softly into a future anxiously interrogated but never really questioned. I think of the slogans of resistance and revolution that we sang and shouted throughout 2019 and before and how they all end in uplift and urgency. And maybe – maybe – all we can do in the now is to work on ways to turn the question marks and ellipses of our contemporary anxieties into the exclamation marks of righteous indignation and refusal.

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

Imad Kaafarani, The Food's Okay, Digital Illustration. 2021

Though we may disagree on the causes, extent, and means of liberating ourselves from the injustice we are living in Lebanon, the fact that this injustice exists remains undeniably true. This is not to say, however, that we necessarily comprehend its inner workings and how it oppresses our ability to think and act. Since the beginning of the Civil War (1975), the Lebanese have been suffering on multiple levels, though suffering in and of itself should not be confused with injustice. The struggle to defend one’s identity, for example, albeit a painful experience, is not necessarily a form of injustice. This distinction depends on how those involved interpret and understand their suffering, the roots of which extend deep into the history of the region but for which the Civil War serves as an all-affecting and pivotal phase.[1] To better understand the complex dimensions of this affliction, I have found it useful to use the analogy drawn from a common feature in the post-war Lebanese urban vernacular, holes. Beyond the physical holes left by the war —bullet holes, potholes, bomb craters, pits, exit wounds etc.— holes in our collective memory and official history have proven more difficult to repair or even recognize.[2]

A common denominator in the various waves of people’s suffering up until the onset of the October 17 uprising/revolution, was the perceived impossibility of collective self-determination. While different social groups may be able to pinpoint the possible causes of their suffering –e.g. systemic sectarian favoritism– it is imperative to reformulate the question of why we are suffering, to “what are we suffering for?” An answer to the latter question requires that all social constituencies engage in inclusive and open deliberation. The potential to transform collective hardship into a constructive mode of cooperation is only realized when the struggles of specific communities can be recognized against the backdrop of collective self-determination –preventing any one community from monopolizing the meaning of suffering. This public discussion is a starting point from which the path to emancipation from oppressive forces becomes possible.

While some object to such collective processes, deeming them detrimental to social cohesion and conducive to further division, I would argue that the void of the Civil War is a historical pit that hinders our epistemic ability to determine our fate together. This, in and of itself, constitutes an injustice against an entire people. And although the logic upon which this widespread and often implicit objection is predicated is practically self-defeating, it has constituted a lasting hurdle in the collective path towards self-determination. This hurdle has contributed to a form of “epistemic injustice,” or an injustice against agents in their capacity as knowers.[3] The subjective condition of our ability to assess the Civil War backfill is thus under severe threat, irrespective of whether we succeed in overcoming our divisions as a society.

The pit

We fill in a pothole, just as we sew a rip in a garment, to keep using that road or garment. Acts of this sort, however, are not equal: some backfilling is beneficial, some less so, and some even harmful and destructive. A pothole is typically leveled with dirt, and when it is backfilled with gold or the bones of the dead, it is a cover-up of waste or negligence or crime. But unlike road repairs which are relatively easy to assess, other invisible pits, such as those in the lives of individuals and groups, are more difficult to discern. Some of these are obvious but remain difficult to acknowledge, while others might be easy to recognize but impossible to address or difficult to repair. These pits can span entire generations, societies, and stages in the history of a people, hindering their ability to come to terms with their past, deal with their current reality, or move forward.

The Civil War can therefore be referred to as a pit in Lebanon’s modern popular history. In addition to the destruction, displacement, and casualties it caused, the War disrupted and redefined many individual and social practices and normative ideas, such as what political, social, and psychological stability meant and what was and still is politically, socially, psychologically, and spatially legitimate. The War exacerbated existing schisms, created new ones, and engendered a lack of credibility and transparency among social constituencies and their relation to the state. This destructive distrust has further permeated in the absence of state institutions, along with the structural corruption and exploitation that continue to stand in the way of achieving even the most basic rights.

While potholes are repaired and easily forgotten, the pits in our lives remain with us. They interact with us, through us, and constantly transform according to how we deal with them. In order to figure out whether the defects have been repaired, where we have succeeded, where we have failed, why and how we got to where we are; we have to evaluate the way a pit was backfilled. The significance of this evaluation lies in the relationship between the quality of the backfill, on the one hand, and the quality of our carrying on as a people, on the other. Such analysis prompts us to think together about how we have dealt with our recent past, in the context of our current reality, with aspirations for a collective future in mind.

Social division and disagreement as a challenge

Many would object that this evaluative task is too difficult, if not impossible, since it requires constructive dialogue and a minimum of overlap among opposing views in analyzing the current reality and aspiring for a future. The task, directly or indirectly, implies an assessment of our self-understanding, our principles, and social and political practices. “Do social divisions and disagreements in Lebanon allow for this kind of genuine openness and confrontation to happen?” naysayers ask rhetorically.

Though modern societies are pluralistic and characterized by diverse and conflicting views, this objection is one of many in Lebanon that rely on exploiting social divisions to argue against this process of evaluating the backfilling of the War –despite its pivotal role in building an inclusive state that serves all its people. And while it is true that the act of evaluating may not be sufficient on its own (after all, the War did not break out in a historical void but was the result of old divisions and wounds), it can still mark the beginning of, and be a reference in, the process of understanding our suffering as a people.

Evaluating the backfill

On a practical level, these objections are self-defeating. Instead of trying, for instance, to dismantle sectarian divisions, they lead –intentionally or not– to positions and policies that perpetuate, normalize, and exacerbate them. In Lebanon, sectarian divisions are present in everything that concerns us, and the less they are spoken about, the more they become a fait accompli, finding their way into preconceived slogans like “This is Lebanon.” Moreover, these objections are used to justify why we should not create and encourage safe spaces for objective and frank discussions about our common problems in general and sectarian divisions in particular. One obvious case is the absence of the Civil War from school curricula, corrupting the possibility of schools being a safe space for future generations to understand these events, their causes, and their repercussions on our present state. What typically happens, instead, is that these questions get asked behind closed doors, resulting in one-sided and biased discussions. There is an urgent need for such public safe spaces, which explains the organic emergence and proliferation of discussion groups during the October 17 uprising/revolution.

On the theoretical level, however, these objections are more robust. Their robustness arises from the fact that any evaluative task or judgment must rely on some standard, on the one hand, and from the theoretical difficulty of securing a legitimate critical social standard for the process of evaluation that concerns us, on the other. Although practical self-defeat may, over the long run, undermine theoretical stability, that stability is capable of maintaining a normative grip over our minds and actions which, in turn, could amplify the negative effects of these objections. It also keeps open the possibility of using these objections (whenever suitable for those in power positions) to block serious attempts for change and maintain the status quo. I propose two responses to this theoretical robustness.

Firstly, while there may not be a consensus on what Lebanon is supposed to be, there is a variety of material interests and conditions that make social constituencies a single people, whether they like it or not. They range from dismal living conditions, to unreliably scarce access to electricity and water, disastrous environmental mismanagement, and the fact that the capital Beirut could be destroyed in the blink of an eye –and life would eventually go on as if nothing had happened. These material interests and conditions constitute a reserve of unifying experiences and suffering shared by all. They also help us better understand and articulate how this struggle, through public debates around these shared experiences, may be the point of departure for collective emancipation. In a joint confrontation of their individual material realities, groups and members of society can attempt to understand the causes and possible means to overcome hardship. Through processes of evaluation —be it of the self, of others, or between groups— each constituency finds itself on the path to understanding its own suffering in relation to collective self-determination.

Secondly, theoretically speaking, a legitimate critical social standard must at least have an “internal dimension” –i.e., it must be a standard that is already, implicitly or explicitly, accepted by those being criticized. In the absence of an internal dimension, criticism is perceived by the criticized as paternalistic or imperialist. Such instances justify the adoption of a defensive stance and a dogmatic adherence to traditional ways of doing things. When a critique has an internal dimension, it cannot be dismissed for being paternalistic or imperialist, and consequently, allowing for real and constructive interaction. The presence of an internal dimension helps those on the receiving end of the critique to become aware of flaws in their traditional ways and in turn possibly motivates them to change their beliefs and practices.

The need for this internal dimension highlights the importance of taking into account the point of view of those being criticized. Going back to the particular case we are considering, disagreement and division among social constituencies in Lebanon are a central component in satisfying that requirement and should not be ignored in the process of evaluating the backfilling of the War. It is crucial not to confuse the difficulties in overcoming disagreement and division, on the one hand, and the conditions that allow us to do just that, on the other hand. The objections under scrutiny rely on the claim that engaging in such a process of overcoming is vain, impossible, or even destructive, an assumption that must be refuted in practice through the accumulation of experience. Whether we will succeed or fail in overcoming our disputes is something to be determined on the ground. To dogmatically insist, before even trying, that we will fail in this task, is either an expression of latent fears or an attempt at intimidation. In either case, there is no justification for avoiding the evaluation of the War backfill.

Epistemic injustice

The main defect in the backfilling process lies in undermining social constituencies’ ability to fulfill their role, if not duty, in assimilating and digesting their past (looking back) in order to be able to project into a future they own (looking ahead). I find recent work on epistemic injustice helpful in understanding how backfill threatens a subjective condition for our ability to even begin playing our role in evaluating that void in our history.[4] Such work focuses on the various ways in which agents’ meaning-making abilities through communicative practices can be oppressed. At the core of epistemic injustice is the idea that some types of discrimination are unfair to the speaker in her capacity as a knower. It refers to practices and knowledge structures that, for example, distort the meaning, ignore or downplay the epistemic value, of some speakers’ contributions because of considerations of gender, class, or race.[5]

In what sense does backfilling the War constitute epistemic injustice, then? Our treatment of the historical pit formed by the Civil War is characterized by denial, concealment, and disavowal. Suffice it to look at how the downtown area, destroyed by the War and loaded with its symbolism, was developed as a commercial district without serious discussion taking public opinion into account. Human life is treated with similar neglect and recklessness: the 17,000 people missing since the Civil War weren’t even officially acknowledged until 2020.[6] In fact, Lebanon transitioned to the post-war period without any kind of assessment or understanding of what happened or why such suffering was necessary. To this day, no mechanisms or processes of apology or reconciliation, let alone accountability, have been put in place.

Backfilling the War constitutes epistemic injustice on at least two levels. First, the strategy of not talking about the War, denying its impact on our daily life, is effectively a strategy that erases a people’s suffering from its collective imaginary. This, in turn, excludes whatever has crept into our collective consciousness as a result of the War, and consequently, separates us from a part of our collective self. This strategy hinders our ability to understand ourselves and implies a form of self-silencing about one’s experiences. When the War is implicitly mentioned in public discourse in Lebanon, it is only with the intent to scare and intimidate. While the saying “may it be remembered and not repeated” (“tenzakar w ma ten3ad”) applies to the Lebanese Civil War, without understanding the events, we are sure to do just the opposite.

Secondly, the War deepened pre-existing divisions and created new fissures. The Civil War and post-war politics classified people in Lebanon into groups according to a logic designed to fuel identity bias and prejudice. Discrimination on the basis of identity, region, or sect leads to a continuous and repeated failure to express ourselves and communicate with the other. This, in turn, negatively affects the ability of the other to acknowledge our epistemic capacity for expression, understanding, and constructive non-partisan participation in the public domain. Relationships of trust are essential to our ability to be sincere and honestly express our experiences without being defensive or afraid. In the absence of such an opportunity, we are in danger of being engulfed by a collective lack of credibility. In light of such impotence, we live in a state of collective ignorance about the War. Blinded by ignorance and through political, social, and personal practices, we contribute to the consolidation and preservation of our collective ignorance.

Both aspects outlined above are tied to a system that benefits from spreading ignorance about our social reality, as well as about a number of key topics such as the case of the missing or the port explosion. Our collective ignorance serves and nourishes political power and the ruling class. It goes without saying that so long as we remain at the mercy of this political class, we are condemned to live under the oppression of favoritism, indifference, inefficiency, and exploitation.

What Now?   

There will not be a national savior, nor should we expect decision-makers in Lebanon to suddenly awake from their slumber. It should be clear then that there is no way around direct action and popular initiatives. While the absence of the state has forced people to figure it out for themselves (“ydabbero rasson”), the results were not, and will not, be successful so long as such efforts are operating from within, and through, our collective ignorance. We must breach the barriers of this ignorance before anything else. One suggestion may be to organize on the level of neighborhoods, schools, and via social media to create safe spaces for a conscious and focused effort to fight ignorance, with the intention to transform individual self-reliance into a collective one. Multiple methods of social activism and organization may offer such an opportunity, through identifying, questioning, and investigating the mechanisms, thought patterns, and “reactions” that our collective ignorance feeds on and spreads through. The road is long and difficult, but what is key is that we embark on the right path. My claim is that this path begins by recognizing our collective ignorance and by consciously observing it so that we learn how, where, and when we can punch a hole in it on the individual and group levels. One hole at a time, we puncture that ignorance, and construct increasingly communicative, fair, and egalitarian interactions with one another. Figuring it out for ourselves might just hold the promise of self-determination.

Translation: Karim Sadek

[1] The concept of “a people” is a social construct. In this paper, I assume that a central element for considering a group of people “a people” lies in how that group understands itself. Factors for such an understanding could include shared intellectual and material conditions, habits and rituals, interpersonal relations over time… The content and contours of “a people” are not fixed but move and change in accordance with historical, sociological, and political contexts.

[2] This interview with Chloé Kattar was helpful in developing key aspects of this text.

[3] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

In this book, Miranda Fricker coined the term epistemic injustice, distinguishing between “hermeneutical injustice” and “testimonial injustice” and others have developed and added to these two types of epistemic injustice (Kidd et al. 2017).

[4] Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia, vol. 26, no. 2, 2011, pp. 236–257.

Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jenkins, Kathatine. “Rape Myths and Domestic Abuse Myths as Hermeneutical Injustices.” Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 191–205.

Kidd, Ian James, Medina José, and Pohlhaus Gail, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice. London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

[5] Initially, works on epistemic injustice were mainly concerned with individuals, but there are recent and serious attempts to apply the concept onto groups. See for instance Altanian, Melanie, and Nadja El Kassar. “Epistemic Injustice and Collective Wrongdoing: Introduction to Special Issue.” Social Epistemology 35.2 (2021): 99-108.

[6] Despite the fact that Law 105, related to the missing and the forcibly disappeared was ratified in 2018, it was only until 2020 that the council of minister signed a law decree for the formation of the national committee for the missing and the forcibly disappeared.
أيوب، لور. “خطوة متقدمة لتكريس حق الأهالي معرفة مصير ذويهم : تشكيل الهيئة الوطنيّة للمفقودين والمخفيين قسراً”. المفكرة القانونية، 23 حزيران\يونيو 2020،، تمّ دخول الصفحة في 28 نيسان\أبريل 2021.


Souhaib Ayoub, Untitled, watercolor. 2019

By the time this piece of writing is ready for submission, London, where I reside, will hopefully be slowly dragging itself out of a year of endless restrictions and lockdowns, with the promise of the UK’s ambitious vaccination program and Boris Johnson’s grandiloquent determination to follow his ‘roadmap to freedom’. We sit in the post-Brexit mess, watching – not without a bit of Schadenfreude, to be honest – the fluctuating COVID statistics in the continent, holding onto a wry optimism that, finally, the end of the tunnel is near on our side of the Channel. The angel of doom a year ago and the herald of freedom right now both timed their arrival at around Nawroz – the Iranian New Year celebrated by a multitude of peoples and nations across the Eastern Islamic space. New year, new beginning, but full of hope?

We have learnt many things over the course of a year, one of them being the ability to keep our hopes in check. We are so conditioned to be pampered by hope when greeted by a new era that not having this warm feeling inside us is unsettling. It started with delayed plans. With fellow members of my university’s Iranian society, we lamented the cancellation of a planned Nawroz celebration but remained cheerful at the prospect of hosting an end-of-academic-year summer gathering just ahead of Tīrgan, confident that the pandemic would be but a temporary inconvenience. As time moved on, it became creepingly clear to me and everyone around me that we had better aim at doubling the fun when the colder seasons came along. When they did, however, it was evident that one would be better off not thinking about the near future, at all. 

The year-long Beckettian wait has forced many of us to seek self-improvement. The global lockdown was quickly followed by an explosion of ‘discounted’ online courses on a variety of topics ranging from Egyptian papyrus to Vedic meditation. Human resistance to Fate, so often mocked in ancient Greek tragedies, was incisively represented by this search for the remedy for altered lives. Whether it was a decision to seize the rare opportunity to catch up on long-delayed projects or a desire to pre-empt wasted time, hidden behind the acts that we suddenly realized we should or could do during our involuntary isolation was a deep, ineffable angst – قلق (qalaq). 

As a student of Arabic, قلق is usually among one of the first words you learn in your introductory textbook. I myself clearly remember when and where and in which textbook I first encountered this triliteral root. It stood out – at least for me – among all the other abstractly presented triliteral roots on which the Arabic language is so concretely woven, for the mere fact that, to articulate قلق, the tongue has to start from the very bottom of my throat, then charge forth to touch the front of my palate, only to retreat back to its starting position. The movement, I thought, was admirable, and the symmetry across the span of the human oral cavity extraordinary. The plosive q, to my sensory perception, always sounds confident, resolute, and above all, rational, whereas the liquid l tends to feel hesitant, mellow, and sentimental. As a beginner, I almost did not need the prompt of translation in order to understand it, and the usual translation, ‘worry’, I instinctively realized, was rather pale and bland compared to the feeling that the mere phonology of the word could convey. Later, I was to learn that قلق belongs in fact to the minority of Arabic words in which the first and third root letters are identical, and is likely to be a derivative of an earlier biliteral root consisting solely of q and l

Arabic is a rich language that abounds in synonyms (or, I should say, near synonyms). There are many other words which interpret the state described by قلق, such as اضطراب , تشويش, and بلبلة. Yet none of these are quite like قلق, for the mere fact that they are either derived from other roots or make you think of other roots. اضطراب and تشویش are both the masdar forms of verbs derived from other roots and are therefore ‘morphologically overloaded’, whereas بلبلة makes you think of the crazed lover, symbolized by the nightingale (بلبل), in so much of Islamic literature. قلق, on the other hand, is a root that refers solely to itself. This semantic ‘absoluteness’ makes me think of why the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa prefers the river in his village to the grand waterway of the Tagus – 

O rio da minha aldeia não faz pensar em nada.

Quem está ao pé dele está só ao pé dele.

‘The river of my village doesn’t make you think of anything.

Whoever is next to it, is merely next to it.’

قلق is also different from the other words in its ability to form a ‘static’ adjective, قلقان, in colloquial Arabic, on the same pattern as جوعان ‘hungry’ and عطشان ‘thirsty’ – adjectives that denote physical conditions and their psychological consequences. Therefore, قلق is this visceral, existential state that is at once independent from other semantic interferences and inclusive of an array of its semantic associates: worry, anxiety, unsettledness, restlessness, apprehension, fear, etc, etc., brilliantly and minimalistically wrought by the dance of the human tongue. My linguist’s curiosity led me to search for cognates of قلق in other Semitic languages, only for my efforts to be frustrated – the Arabic قلق, as it so appears, is a unique lexical existence in the ocean of Semitic languages, and its etymology defiantly unclear. It does seem to have a possible derivative, though, in Arabic – the verb قلقل, which vividly depicts the act of ‘shaking’ and ‘agitation’ in the same onomatopoeic manner as قلق. Although it is unclear if قلقل is related to قلق, I do like the idea of the word for mental agitation giving rise to the word for physical agitation through phonetic intensification. The etymological ambiguity gives قلق a certain lexical absoluteness that makes it a unique semantic presence in the Arabic language.

We as humans are in constant search for stability. The yearning for a place to feel safe and comfortable in is encoded in our DNA and goes back to our most primitive existence tens and thousands of years ago. Zoroastrians believe that the one and only, eternal God, Ahura Mazdā, or the ‘Wise Lord’, created the world by setting everything – the stars, the flora and fauna, humanity and animals, etc. – in good, almost motionless order. The in the name of the Wise Lord, in fact, comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning ‘to set, to put’, with the extended meaning of ‘to create’. The motion of the universe, which produces chaos and misery faced by humanity, is the direct result of the devil Ahriman’s relentless attempts to disrupt and confound the good order created by Ahura Mazdā.

In the Persianate world, i.e. the Eastern Islamic sphere dominated and influenced by the Perso-Islamic civilization, the concept of stability is poetically interpreted by the commonly employed word, قرار, which is largely used in modern Arabic in the sense of ‘decision’. Many Arabic borrowings into Persian and subsequently other languages influenced by Persian have retained in these languages their etymological meanings, whereas in modern Arabic, their extended meanings have become more common. قرار is one of these words. The root q-r-r is everything that قلق is not – constancy, assurance, a feeling of being firmly grounded in a situation, in other words, the ideal cosmic order that the Zoroastrian Wise Lord created, or the Abrahamic paradisiac existence of humanity before the devilish interference. In Persian Sufi poetry, human existence exiled from God’s presence is compared to a pining lover languishing in endless separation from his beloved. Interestingly, قرار also starts with the confident, solid q; like in قلق, the tongue also moves to the front of the mouth, but this time, instead of retreating, it repeats what it sets out to accomplish – the consonant r – as if to signal its determination, proclaim its settlement, and firmly take hold of its مَقرّ – or قرارگاه in Persian and other Eastern Islamic languages. 

To suggest that there is an intrinsic link between sound and meaning is, of course, linguistically untenable, but there is a certain poeticness to such musings. Here, the Portuguese word sossego, which designates a state of calm and peace within and without – what many of us find hard to obtain during these trying times – also comes to mind. Sossego ultimately comes from the Latin word sessus ‘to be seated’ and is therefore tell-tale of an instinctive semantic association between the static position and the peace of mind, recalling the meaning of قرار. The alliteration of the sibilant s echoes the churning of a small stream by which you are sitting in contemplation or the rustling of leaves in a tree on a warm, breezy night: quietude – a word that has eluded our existence for long.

There is ineffable happiness in quietude. Happiness is different from joy, which is often conferred by noise and agitation and is therefore ephemeral. Happiness is static. This is perhaps why happiness can be a goal to be pursued and lived ‘ever after’. In fact, the English word quiet, from Latin quietus, originated from the same Indo-European root as the Persian word shād ‘happy’. It is no surprise that, in Persian, we say روحشان شاد ‘May his/her soul be happy’ when someone passes away. Shād in Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenids, meant ‘rested’ before evolving into the modern meaning ‘happy’. In the West, this is requiescat in pace – ‘rest in peace’, in the unspoiled heavenly existence that humanity on earth has lost. 

السلام عليكم, שלום עליכם, ܫܠܡܐ ܥܠܘܟܘܢ – ‘peace be upon you’. This expression, so prevalent in the Semitic linguistic sphere as a formula of greeting, tells exactly of humanity’s deep anxiety over instability. The ancient triliteral root سلم has the meaning of ‘to be intact, secure, to remain in safety’ and constituted the name of a deity, called none other than سلام, worshipped by Assyrians and pre-Islamic Arabs. The deity سلام represented all that was beautiful and good, echoing the pre-motion ideal world, masterfully fashioned by the Zoroastrian Wise Lord whose light stands in absolute contrast with the darkness of the devil Ahriman. After the advent of Islam, the One and Only God, الله, was also attributed this name as one of His ninety-nine names. 

Πάντα ῥεῖ pánta rheî ‘everything flows’, as Heraclitus told us more than two millennia ago. In many cultures, the cosmos that contains the world of the living is compared to a turning wheel which the Persians call چرخ فلک charkh-i falak, whose wanton motions are a constant source of قلق. This imagery is not as esoteric as we think, as the alteration of day and night as well as the change of seasons must have also been observable by our ancestors who decided on it. The silver lining to the constant lack of قرار is that no reality lasts forever – who knows if at the next turning of the wheel, the adverse situation you are facing will become favorable? On the side of the coin, who may promise that your euphoria of present will not turn into misery of future? Who knows? – good question. We desire to know, particularly about the future, about which the more trustworthy information we have, the more reassured we are and the less قلق we have in life. We fear the unknown precisely because we dread the agitation it will bring us. Yet we cannot know. We are humans, and الله أعلم. The last resort for us to find security and peace, the ultimate delivery of our existence from قلق, is to be united with العليم and السلام, the All-Knowing Bestower of Tranquility at the end of our days, and obtain بقاء ‘eternity.’ 

Sufis have forever yearned to return to the serene presence of the Creator from whom humanity was exiled to this wild world of chaos.. Sufi poetry often has an overwhelmingly sorrowful tone that may or may not be conducive to peace of mind, depending on your taste. However, what is universal is the teaching that we must relinquish worldly attachments in order to be reunited with the Absolute, الحق. Mawlānā of Balkh, better known as Rūmī, instructs everyone who wishes to be on the right spiritual path:

هم خویش را بیگانه کن هم خانه را ویرانه کن

ham khēsh rā bēgāna kun ham khāna rā vayrāna kun

‘Make your ego a stranger and your house ruins.’

These words are strikingly similar to what Krishna, the Hindu Supreme God’s major avatar, advises Arjuna, the symbol of all mortals, in Bhagavad Gītā:


निर्द्वन्द्वो नित्यसत्त्वस्थो

निर्योगक्षेम आत्मवान्


nirdvandvo nityasattvastho

niryogakṣema ātmavān

‘Be… free from the dualities, stand firm in harmony, without acquisition and possession, and established in the self.’

قلق is the state of being trapped between dualities: the known and the unknown, the acquired and the unacquired, the present and the absent, the past and the future… We feel helpless as our minds and bodies wander between remorse and hope, nostalgia and expectation, compensation and resolution. To this effect, the Zoroastrians of pre-Islamic Iran have a succinct yet profound piece of advice for us in the Handarz ī Āturpāt Mahrspandān ‘Wise Counsel of Āturpāt, Son of Mahrspand’:

ān uzīd framōš kun ud ān nē mad ēstēd rāy tēmār bēš ma bar.

‘Forget that which has gone, and do not worry about that which has not come.’

Centuries later, Omar Khayyam would repeat this timeless ideal of existence in many of his rubāʿiyāt (quatrains), such as:

هرگز غم دو روز را نباید خوردن
روزی که نیامده و روزی که گذشت

Hargiz gham-i dū rōz rā nabāyad khurdan
Rōz-ē ki nayāmada u rōz-ē ki guzašt

‘Never should one worry about two days:
The day which has not come and the day which has passed’

This, perhaps, is the essence of stoicism which frees us from the chains of the past and the future and restores our agency over what we can and do know – the present moment, constantly reminding us that our inner peace (قرار) ultimately depends on our decision (قرار) vis-à-vis our outer circumstances. How we perceive ourselves and our lives does not solely depend on our interaction with the outside world but also on our interaction with ourselves. The source of the stability we pursue as humans is best found, or created, within ourselves. It is the only sort of stability that no external force is able to compromise and the only sort of stability that adapts to external circumstances and keeps our cognition of our selves stable, intact, happy – سالم, مقرر, شاد, or in Sanskrit, आत्मवान ātmavān

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


[2]Haugbolle, S. (2011). The historiography and the memory of the Lebanese civil war. Online encyclopedia of mass violence, 5.

[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.

[5]Larkin, C. (2010). Beyond the war? The Lebanese postmemory experience. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 615-635.

[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:

[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:

[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)


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.


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. 


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?


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.


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). 


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


[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, 

[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.

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

[7]Ibid p 32

[8]Ibid p 9


[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.

[12]  قناة العشوائية. “الثورة في لبنان #ثورة(1)” Youtube, uploaded by قناة العشوائية. Oct 18, 2019,

[13]  Baba, M. “عم قصر بنطلون” Youtube, uploaded by Mazen Baba, January 27, 2020,

[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.

[16]Atallah, L.


[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