through their mouths came their lasting virtue

Image 1: Asiya Wadud. counterpoint, seven by one. digital photo collage. 2021.

still concave movement sunken tens

no less burdened

threefold deliverance unless convergence

and then nightly grit and

suffused in sand until it glistened

laid bare for us to witness

beheld,       no objection in the desire line

a reflex is     a green crescendo and it exerts its movement

felled again inside circular logic

spun at the outer edge and held, tension resists any freefall

taut still and at the brim

sightline trained again, spins then orients

listen now the grid is nearly finished

every graphite quatrain its own containment

abuts the border and the frame

still anything can writhe through, slick and pinprick

we all once saw it, mercurial and cut its groove

let the decadent finish and decay work their vessels

all elegance now ensnared

luxury in allegiance— shrouded and our hands are held

assurance granted in a vertical slat

floorboards guard the urgent lintel

handle flush against the floor

all barren kingdoms came last night

in a lowland dream appeared both host and apparition

silent except for when they spoke

through their mouths came their lasting virtue

we each turned our backs to hear their creed

pelted down all crescendo

all urgent timbres call us back

they spoke

all drifted timbres grafted now

I am thirty days across December

why let the crest drift?

built a cradle and crane as fastened instrument

resist the weight and see it’s leaden— lachrymose, I am loosened and green

all decades a vaunted finish

at the epitaph of what did the grid finish?

and what did the grid commit?

four corners, aseptic in their approach

cinched corners

staunch and knitted, such ochre arrangements

spilling forth across the avenues

advancing and viscous floral finish

we were hidden in the filmy range of nimbus cloud coverage

and through its fissures the cellular, ulterior sky became

its crimson future crumbles then

almost ventured at the still-life

vaunted so the burden lifts

blue algae bloomed and crest fell then

nightingale and coloration swallows and acuity

crimson does it easy now

still psalms and ribbons bowed

Image 2: Asiya Wadud. oratory in green 1. photocopied, scanned tissue paper. 2022.
Image 2: Asiya Wadud. oratory in green 1. photocopied, scanned tissue paper. 2022.

handle flush against the floor

casework at the foundation

ghost-tens and three-fold logic

what rests just under

sequential triplicate takes time like juniper jade or mantis

or a suggestion to let it be                  so it can give

bend and let the chorus see retrieval

let it take limb for limb vaunted coverage

split hymns and splayed psalms

percussive thirds round the mantel

still the drift is staunch and knitted, such ochre arrangements, oracle

any urgency inside the pine boxes succumbs to

jade juniper or mantis

mantis then to secretion, a curtain folded back against

operatic logic

housed inside uncut timbres

it lets them ring out

lets the silt echo oracle

all thirty kingdoms came last night

in a lowland dream appeared both host and apparition

jagged edges and then resting, curved

cultivated at the end of December

dressed the timetable and the pine boxes

thirty-seven times the question

mount the stones and should the chorus sound

circular logic in the quiet room

if the crypt is finished then let them in

gilded logic came last night

it said to me what it said

all attribution and covenant

all baseline and promise

all foundation and from the ground up

thirsty in its logic

Image 3: Asiya Wadud. oratory in green 2. photocopied, scanned tissue paper. 2022.
Image 3: Asiya Wadud. oratory in green 2. photocopied, scanned tissue paper. 2022.

still psalms and ribbons bowed so

the entanglement is what is given

work the area and make it tender

felled in urgency so the invitation rests

handle flush against the floor

future ghost-tens and three-fold logic

beamed logic then radial crests

the avenues brimmed with silken water

send everything with innuendo

radial crest and pitcher hover

in a dream last night

every kingdom finally disposed

it was operatic

at the ending, it was governed by the final frailty

future lay a furnace then, kingdom brick by brick then felled

Haussmann’s logic or a century foregone

every lit lantern waxes endings

preservation was all they meant

decay was at altitude and all the rest was siren song

let it canter and keen, fold in lament and breadth

breath’s surrender and crest with the next wave

the structure bears its only logic, though heaven did want sentiment

through the velvet texture became a future

Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.
Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from “HOMO FINIS”, Film, 2022.

For Human (ب.ش.ر)

For Fire (ح.ر.ق)

"Villainy" Excerpts for The Derivative

Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.
Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.

You fuck me with your entire hand in a room full of the dead. The dead are inside boxes behind glass. You fuck me so we can feel for one second that our friends are not dead. That they are living inside of us. A security guard approaches & you stop. I pull you up from the floor by the lapels of your leather jacket. Face covered in cum. I exhale & absorb our dead friends into my body like you opened up a gateway for their arrival. I absorb them into my body & hope they will stay. & that they are happy & dry & warm. I give up the possibility of sleep for myself in an effort to make an environment for my dead friends. A social space. A closed world.

.

a slow song comes on. it’s called the leaving song. the crowd pushes forward but there is no longer a forward to brake into. the crowd tries anyway until my feet are no longer on the floor & your feet are no longer on the floor & I press my hand against your cock while I am pressed against so many other people & so many other people are pressed against you/ some of them are the same & some of them are just more & our feet are off the ground. you are moaning. some of the mass is concerned that you are going to pass out that the possibility of (a singularity unbecoming) unbecoming a singularity is beyond the present. is too soon. our feet are off the ground. the crowd pushes forward your cum covers my hand the others pressed against me cover the back of my neck in sweat you begin to fall & I pull you up so you don’t fall beneath the feet of the expanded self

.

THE PARALLEL BETWEEN BODY AND EARTH

I DIG A W/HOLE TO FEEL ENCLOSURE
I DIG A W/HOLE TO MAKE A CONTAINER FOR THE PARTS OF
MYSELF DRIBBLING OUT OF THE BUILDING & ACROSS
THE SIDEWALK
I DIG A W/HOLE TO FIND A DARKNESS
I CAN FALL ASLEEP WITHIN
I DIG A W/HOLE & THEN BLOW IT UP
SO THAT I MIGHT FIT ALL OF
MY PARTS INTO IT
EVEN THE STUFF DRIBBLING OUT ACROSS THE SIDEWALK
I NEED TO FIND
ALL OF MY PARTS
FIRST
BEFORE I KNOW IF I WILL FIT INTO IT
I DIG A W/HOLE IN THE SIDE OF A MOUNTAIN
BUT I CAN’T EVEN REACH IT
I DIG A W/HOLE IN THE GROUND IN THE SHAPE OF MYSELF
BUT I STILL CANNOT STUFF MYSELF INSIDE OF IT
I DIG A W/HOLE MAYBE BIG ENOUGH BUT WHEN I LEFT
TO GO LOOK FOR THE REST OF MY PARTS I COULD NOT
FIND MY WAY BACK TO IT
I FOUND THE TRAIL OF DIRT BACK TO THE W/HOLE
BUT I KEPT DROPPING MY PARTS ALONGSIDE IT
I SEE SMOKE & THINK I HAVE FOUND MY WAY BACK
BUT WHEN I STEP CLOSER I FIND MY OUTLINE HAS
DISAPPEARED
& I AM LOSING MY PARTS FASTER & FASTER &
IT IS BECOMING HARDER & HARDER TO
REPLACE THEM
THE BROKEN PARTS OF MY OUTLINE SIT DOWN ON THE
DIRT HAPHAZARDLY & WAIT TO RECONNECT
I JUST HOPE THERE IS ENOUGH OF ME LEFT

//////

.

oh you know, dig me out
so i might climb inside
so i can split apart my ribs
& lay down FLAT

what’s beyond the screen/what’s beyond the scene

.

I CAN HEAR THE PALM OF YR HAND DRAG ALONG THE WALL
RED INK GETTING TRAPPED BETWEEN YR FINGERS

I DRAG MY HANDS DOWN FROM ABOVE
MY HEAD / ALONGSIDE EACH OTHER THEY DON’T
ALWAYS CATCH AT THE SAME PLACE / ALONG THE DRAG

BLOOD SIGN / BLOOD INSIDE / BLOOD OUTSIDE

DIG / DISFIGUREMENT / OUTLINES / CARVE / CRAVE

LEAVE BEHIND

DARK & DISFIGURED

CLIMB

INSIDE

A SCREEN IN THE GREEN
A GREEN SCREEN
HORROR MOVIE RED
PROJECTED INTO THE TREE TRUNK

.

THIS

SHOULD

NOT

BE

HARD

ON

YR

BODY

.

ABOVE & BELOW

INSIDE & OUTSIDE

CLIMBING IN

FALLING OUT

MY HEAD IS TWISTED BUT I’M STILL NOT LOOKING BACK
BUT IT’S STILL NOT TIME TO GO THROUGH I’M STILL

PARTWAY SUBMERGED

IN THE WRONG STILL

I’M STILL PARTWAY SUBMERGED

IN THE WRONG SET OF OUTLINES

I’M STILL

PARTWAY SUBMERGED IN THE WRONG WORLD
I LOOK UPON MY OWN DISFIGUREMENT &

SINK ALL THE WAY THROUGH

The Place Is Not the Place

Artwork: Aline Deschamps, "Two former domestic workers from Sierra Leone hang out in their shared-house in Tariq El Jdide (Beirut, Lebanon). There are over twenty women living in this small apartment - as they keep welcoming other "sisters" from their home country who have escaped abuses or have been left on the street by their employers, in the midst of a pandemic and of an economic collapse in the country." Photograph, 2020

This text emerged from a conversation that started informally nearly ten years ago over many days and nights in Beirut, but that took place formally in May of 2022 from outside Beirut, between myself in Berlin, Germany, and Beza Girma in Hawassa, Ethiopia.

Inspired by the theme of ‘b-sh-r’,[1] we discussed Beirut’s multiple cities and the people that circulate in them: how they move, the ruptures in their paths, and their unplanned arrivals and returns.

Whereas I find writing about my personal present difficult, this text was all the more difficult for two reasons. The first–shared by many I suspect–is that I have lost all but the language of clichés to speak about Beirut. The second is that I felt constrained by the deep discomfort of the asymmetrical power relation in our conversation.

Beza and I first met many years ago, regularly spending Sunday mornings at home, cooking and talking. A lot of our talks were about womanhood in Beirut, and the many ways in which we inhabit the place differently. Real as the oppression is for Palestinian and Syrian refugees, it does not compare to the kafala system that governs the lives of migrant worker communities in Lebanon. Given our individual structural positions as a middle-class Palestinian refugee and an Ethiopian migrant worker, I always thought twice about my grievances before I expressed them. Similarly, I hesitated to place our experiences side by side in this text, lest I signal oblivion to the power structures at play. This, however, never imprisoned our conversations, nor did it foreclose our ability to engage on multiple registers of personal and political.

It is in this spirit that I wrote this text: an attempt to narrate how we have inhabited Beirut, together and separately, and what we have carried with us moving forward. It departs from the conversation we had in May and weaves in questions and thoughts that have weighed on us for over a decade.

‘The country does not hate you. Its people hate you.’

Why do we love places that engineer our oppression? This question haunted my conversation with Beza Girma. Despite over a decade of life under Kafala, Beza has only grown fonder of Lebanon. When she had to leave over a year ago, she, as many of us—nationals, refugees and migrants—was devastated. She yearns for a life back in Hamra, a life of friendship and comradery in the home she and her community created with literal blood, sweat and tears. 

The story Beza told me was of a young woman coming of age in Beirut. It was not about kafala and its horrors, nor was it about a life in cloistered servitude (omnipresent as these experiences were). Beza’s story was that of an Ethiopian woman finding her way in the world. It was about the thrills and the heartbreaks of her twenties, the transitions into different stages of adulthood, the question of whether to have (more) children, how to mend one’s relationship with one’s mother, and above all, a story of how female friendships make the world go round.

To arrive at this story, we must start at the end.

In 2021, after over a decade in Beirut, Beza returned to her home in Hawasaa, Ethiopia, to have her second child. She had left her first child with her sister when she first traveled to Beirut as a teenager, and wanted a different experience for her second. She could not fathom having a black child in Beirut, nor could she bear life in the aftermath of the storm that overtook Lebanon starting 2019: a revolution, a financial collapse, and an explosion. Although she told many stories of brutal racial violence, she said it was not these things that broke her. It was the persistent mundane violence that cut the deepest.

She recounted her first echography appointment in a Beirut hospital where the technician told her off for being pregnant: “you’re not here to have children, you’re here to work.” A few months prior, she had confronted her employer about a pay raise: $250 a month for 12-hour working days simply did not cut it given Lebanon’s economic crisis. “You should be grateful”, he said, “ibn el-balad is not working”.[2] “It broke me”, she said. “Even if you live there for twenty years you will remain a stranger.” Beza was as emotional telling these stories as when she recounted how, as a domestic worker, she had a cyst removed from her breast and was back at work two hours later, blood dripping down her ribs.

After her employer refused her raise, she decided to leave: to have a child with her partner and move back to raise her in Hawassa. Beza described the sheer impossibility of raising racialized children in Lebanon. She told stories of Lebanese parents asking for an Ethiopian child to be sat far from their own, of Ethiopian-Lebanese children being moved to other schools, even sent to school in Ethiopia to spare them the horror. “If I needed to leave [to Lebanon] now, I would leave her behind… I accepted this [life], I was forced to. I now live with it. She’s young and she won’t know.”

But why does Beza love a place so violent? A place where she could never raise her baby girl? A place that hates her? “I still love Lebanon. I changed a lot, physically, mentally. I learned a lot in Beirut. I love it… it’s the people. The country does not hate you… Its people hate you.”

The reverse is also true: places don’t love you – their people love you. Beza described the few friendships that changed her view of “white people” (referring to the Lebanese and presumably some other Arabs), women with whom she worked, engaging as friends, as people who belong to a place, as equals. That this is exceptional is scandalous. We inhabit the same city, and yet rarely engage with migrant worker communities outside the framework of service provision or political solidarity. We rarely, if ever, engage as friends, neighbors, or curious strangers with whom unexpected intimacies and antagonisms might emerge. This is of course classed and gendered in addition to being racialized, but it is inexcusable, shameful even. It is part of the daily mundane violence we all practice against migrant workers.

Despite these interracial exceptions Beza described, it was the community of Ethiopian women that made Beirut home. The woman who took her in after she escaped her employer’s home and found her first ‘freelance’ job. The seven women with whom she shared a three-bedroom apartment, with whom she cooked and fought and grieved, with whom she built a family, a home. “No one will go hungry if one of us is working” she said. But home is a thorny concept. “There is a law that governs you in a different way… I pay rent but I cannot play loud music. Any of the neighbors can call 112 [the police]. If they come you’ll go to jail. There is no mercy, you can’t reason with them.” She said they protected themselves through constant self-monitoring. “I do what I want outside, but at home I’m careful.” Home is outside, the few hours a day when she is not working or sleeping. The fleeting moments of joy that make one’s life memorable, bearable. Why, then, would one stay here?

The Camp is not Beautiful. We are beautiful.[3]

At home in Hawassa, Beza never follows Ethiopian news. She listens to Lebanese news only. She is unable to connect to the community she has returned to and sees little point in building a full life there. “I stay with my daughter and niece, my son is at school. I am rebuilding my relationship with my mom, who left me when I was young. I opened a small café, and I am working there.” But it is difficult, she says.

My friend Forat recently told me that everytime she moves to a new city, it takes her two years to reconcile with the old one. To tie loose ends, to lose hope and kill nostalgia, to sever a limb. I asked Beza if this resonated with her, she simply reversed the question, “how do you feel about Lebanon? You have everything outside [in the United Kingdom], what brings you back?”

It is my aging parents, I told her. Like all Palestinians, I knew I would need to leave at some point if I were to have a life. I decided to sever that limb in 2018, after a series of heartbreaks and ‘bureaucratic’ troubles. I successfully completed the mission (or thought I did) in the summer of 2019. After the Camps Revolt, and before “revolution proper”. That the Camps Revolt fell out of the narrative of revolution in Lebanon was the final straw, but I’ll come back to that in a bit. 

“They do not want us. They do not like Palestinians” I told her (even if many love Palestine. Lebanon has its own sinister brand of anti-Palestinianism, both in mainstream and in alternative spaces).

Graffiti – Nahr el-Bared camp [From: Nastopia] Photo by Marwa Loubani (Facebook), 2019. 

“See, you still want something from them,” Beza said. She, on the other hand, did not wait for their recognition. “I am not Lebanese, I am Ethiopian. I will live in this country the way I want to, no matter how unjust it is. I will not wait for any Lebanese person to think we are equal. I put my mind to this. That’s why no one can hurt me… For you it’s hard, your parents are there, and you want to live where you grew up.”

After some defensiveness I conceded. “You’re right. I do want something from them, and I hate it.”

I want a work permit. The right to own property. To spend less time in the halls and offices of ministries. To pull less strings and call in less favors. Bureaucracy is refugees’ tenth circle of hell, a layer of human existence that many are (luckily) oblivious to. Over the course of 74 years, the state has custom-tailored an arsenal of exclusionary laws and arbitrary practices that govern our lives. How can one build a dignified life without the right to work or own their home?

I want the wall surrounding Ein el-Helwe to disappear. The ghettoization and securitization to end. I wanted Nahr el-Bared to not have been destroyed, for more ‘comrades’ to have been more comrade-like. This is by far the most taboo subject on Palestinians in Lebanon. One day, we will talk all about this. I want this day to come sooner rather than later.

I want the May Day protests that bring together refugees, migrants and nationals to be more than an annual festivity of progressive folklore. I want to have a real conversation among the non-nationals, maybe even (I dared dream one day) a movement. I want our ‘scene’ to be less toxic, less chauvinist, less homophobic, less misogynistic, less cliquish. I want the city to be less violent and brutal.

I want the Camps Revolt of 2019 to have been seen. For it to be part of the narrative of thawra, whatever that is. (If Palestinians’ labor protests can be so easily erased, what hope do migrants have?)

Exactly three years ago, the Palestinian camps of Lebanon were raging with popular protests over the right to work. The camps’ revolt started on 15 July 2019 and lasted for 3 months, dovetailing with the beginning of the Lebanese October revolution. It is remarkable that most analysis of revolutionary fervor in Lebanon starts in October, completely erasing mass protest in the 12 Palestinian camps and in some Lebanese cities.[4] More remarkable is the omission of the labor and class underpinnings of the camps revolt when analyzing the economic roots of the Lebanese revolution.

One can argue that the crisis in the camps was an early warning of Lebanon’s final arrival at a breaking point, as it is those at the bottom who feel the crisis most acutely. Of the many communities that are at the bottom – the Lebanese poor, Syrian refugees, migrant worker communities and others – the Palestinians were the first to erupt in protest. I would further argue the camps’ revolt was not only an early warning of crisis but also the first spark of revolt against it. That this is absent from most analysis of the October revolution is telling of the Lebanese-nationalist citizen-centric nature of the discourse around it – but that is a story for another day.

Many of Lebanon’s residents are crushed under the weight of the crisis. But I am not interested in the many. I am interested in the few. Those of us who marched the streets in October 2019, despite the prevailing chauvinism, with our hearts jumping out of our chests with love and pride. Those who—every morning before heading down to the streets—worked hard to silence that voice inside. The certainty that we don’t belong, that our struggles don’t matter, that our demands will not be voiced, and that we will never be of the place. We can only ever be in it.

We will never be of the place. We can only ever be in it. Why, then, do we love the place? Nasri Hajjaj so eloquently summed it up: “There was nothing beautiful about the camp except for us. We are beautiful, and not the camp.”[5]

“Ode to Ein El Helwi Refugee camp”, Amal Kaawash, 2013

The place is not beautiful. We project our beauty on the place. We project on it our lives—their sweet-bitter contradictions, the love and laughter and safety we experienced, the core memories that sculpted our person. We make it beautiful. A kind of beauty that escapes the gaze of most. The beauty of Dawra on a Sunday afternoon. The beauty of Ein el-Helwe from our balcony at sunset. Fleeting moments of serenity and sublimity that punctuate years of structural violence.

In a piece on the camps revolt, Moné Makkawi, paraphrasing Audrey Lorde, wrote, “Those who live in the master’s house know intimately the web of forces that define the material conditions of their daily lives. At the crossroads of inequity and injustice, Palestinians know best the necessity to reclaim and reshape such forces.”[6]

Whereas Palestinians and Syrians live in the masters’ figurative house, it is migrant domestic workers who literally dwell in the masters’ abode, and their experiences provide an intimate insight into streets, offices and homes across the country’s geography. Have we taken interest in what they have seen? Have we looked in that mirror, to see our reflection in their eyes? It is chilling to consider how ugly we can be.

How would we see ourselves if we listened to the stories of the many residents of Lebanon – its citizens, refugees, migrants, non-IDs? What if we think of these stories not as a mirror or lens to view Lebanese society, but as the very threads that make up its fabric? What I am advocating here is not a multiculturalist reading of Lebanon against its nationalist grain. Neither is it a move from the periphery to the center in an attempt to recover the voices erased from historical narrative.

On the contrary, it is an invitation to reckon with who we are. To reckon with the place we have collectively created.

The place is us. It does not hate us. It is not beautiful. It is us, and we, sometimes, are beautiful. 


[1] In her editorial introduction to the section on Human in The Derivative’s third issue, Sumayya Kassamali wrote that the texts began with the speculative provocation, “What would it look like, to you, for us to meet in a Beirut that allowed us to encounter each other as humans?”. In addition to Sumayya’s editorial guidance, she created the space where this decade-long conversation with Beza took place. This text is heavily informed by her personal insight and scholarly work.

[2] Ibn el-balad, (ابن البلد) literally ‘the sons of the country’, refers to Lebanese nationals.

[3] Paraphrasing Nasri Hajjaj’s poem Atathakkar (اتذكر), quoted below.

[4] For more on the revolution see:

Makkawi, Moné. “‘Your Decision and Ours’: Palestinian Strikes in Lebanon and Contemporary Urban Rights.” Arab Urbanism العمران العربيّ, 14 Aug. 2020, www.araburbanism.com/magazine/your-decision-and-ours [English];

Sleiman, Hana & Islam al-Khatib. “حراك المخيّمات الفلسطينية في لبنان: محاولة جديدة للخروج من الهامش.” 
7iber حبر, Aug 9 2019
حراك المخيّمات الفلسطينية في لبنان: محاولة جديدة للخروج من الهامش – 7iber | حبر [Arabic]

[5] Hajjaj, Nasri (1951-2021). “اتذكر” Atathakkar. Lebanon: undated. Originally published on the late author’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/nasri.hajjaj.3

أتذكّر

المخيم ليس جميلاً
لا شيء فيه
يدعو إلى زعزعة الروح سحراً
ولا حتى دوالي العنب
وأشجار التين
والحواكير الصغيرة الفخورة
بالبصل والنعناع
والفجل والمردقوش
والحبق سارق انتباه الأنوف
والشهوات
المخيم لعنة
كنا نعتقد بأنها مؤقتة
لكنها استوطنت أرواحنا
فرحنا نبحث عن الجماليّ في
أزقتها وسقوفها الهشة
،غافلين عن الجمال الخفيّ
لم يكن في المخيم
ما هو جميل
غيرنا
نحن الجميلون
وليس المخيم

نصري حجاج –

[6] Makkawi, M.

S/he Said

Click here (PDF) for an optimal view.

She Said

There was this beautiful, beautiful river
A very dangerous river
With swift currents
A very dangerous place
Very deep water

They were very politically aware
They felt they were living under a repressive regime
They were all part of an underground movement
They were very optimistic
It was wonderful
The hope and the promise
And then what happened afterwards was so bad

Everywhere there were guards
Secret police on the streets watching
They did not want to be seen
Some of his relatives had been shot by the British
Him and the other rebels were armed
They chased this policeman
And he got caught between these rebels and was shot
They were hung
Some men had been hung
They were hung under this bridge

When the aeroplanes came
It made me realise that the situation was very volatile
There was a lot more tension everywhere
People were really worried
All those places have been devastated
That was very sad
It was just for everybody, utterly horrendous
They’ve seen such dreadful things
They’ve been through things that we haven’t
Such sadness

Extracts from a series of interviews conducted in 2021 with my mother. She lived in Iraq from 1964 to 1980.

He Said

We are on the Tigris
We reached the river bank
And found the bridge burning
A party of machine guns and sappers came up
We killed not less than 200

I have absolutely no qualifications for political work
I am a stranger in a strange land
The people hate us and hope that the tribes will mop us up
The whole country is falling on evil days
I saw armed tribesmen and emptied my revolver into them
They are the sort of people
Who would sooner part with their eyes than their rifles

There is fighting all over the place
I have made an example of two people
I had one of them flogged in the market place
And sentenced an old man to a year’s imprisonment
I had him tied up and beaten
And sent to Baghdad in heavy chains
We got fired on
Another officer murdered
By God this man must be hanged
He well deserves what he has got

I saw two airmen. Wonderful fellows!
The town has surrendered the persons we wanted
Planes went over to bomb it this morning
We managed to stop four of them
But I’m afraid one went on…
The people were really frightened, poor things
The people know me and I know them and I’ve got to like the place
It is a very dangerous policy in the East to rely on the goodwill of the people
I have grown to be a pessimist with regard to the future of Mesopotamia
Please keep all I say to yourself

Extracts from letters written by a British Political Officer to his wife. He was stationed in Iraq from 1917 to 1925.

Artworks: Jananne Al-Ani, stills from Timelines, film, 2022.

Timelines focuses on a highly decorated brass tray that originated in Iraq and is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum Collection, London. The tray is said to mark Armistice Day, 1918, but the depiction of biplanes and the execution of an Arab man by British forces, points to events surrounding the Arab Revolt of 1920, an overlooked and little-known chapter in the history of British intervention in Iraq. The uprising posed a serious threat to plans to create the modern state of Iraq under a British mandate in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Had it not been for the use of airpower to crush the rebellion and attack civilian targets – a form of modern warfare ‘pioneered’ by the British in the 1920s – the revolt may have succeeded, and the history of the modern Middle East would look very different today.

The Jinniyya’s Daughter

Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.
Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.

Translation: Ziad Dallal

In his book on pre-Islamic poetry and the origins of Arabic prosody,  Palestinian poet Hussein Barghouthi, that comet that, just like my mother, burned out too soon, writes: “This is not a research project where [as the poet Abu Nuwas says], ‘I know some things (about the jinn) while being ignorant of others.’ Rather, what you are reading are ‘observations, fantasies, and experiments rooted in actual history.’”[1] Here, however, they are rooted in my mother’s history, the woman who birthed me and then faded away. And yet, she remained a ṭayf, an apparition roaming in varying forms throughout my life. An apparition throws the human into a whirlpool of paranoid delusion, or imagination, or the realm of the jinn. This evokes for me the link between the figure of the jinn and my mother’s madness (junūn). 

When I was invited to write on the theme of ghosts for The Derivative, I immediately thought of my mother. Initially, the association surprised me, but I recalled the words of al-Jahiz: “Whenever something is more unusual, it appears queerer in the imagination, and whenever it appears queerer in the imagination, it is more curious, then more wondrous and then more marvelous.”[2] Having dug deep into Arabic culture’s preoccupation with jinn– those supernatural beings who are distinguished for being present and absent at once– my mind began to dream up a link between my mother, who was also distinguished for her presence-absence. 

My mother had been suffering from schizophrenia for more than ten years before I was born. Within two months of my birth, she would relapse, be admitted into a psychiatric hospital, slowly detach from reality, and drift towards clinical death. Twenty-four years later, she would die from a cancer for which she refused to get treatment. I spent twenty-four years with her in that condition of presence and absence. Not much has changed since her departure. I have pondered how to describe this presence-absence, for both appear to be two sides of the same coin, as if the jinn and the mad (majānīn) shared this particularity. As if the mad are jinn imprisoned in bodies. 

This is what occured to me when I was standing above her corpse before it entered the crematorium. Her face was frozen and cold to the touch. I became unnerved and could not continue uttering my farewell. Only after a decade had passed did I rest assured, for I grasped that the fire had delivered her from her corporeal prison. Perhaps this also explained my feeling of estrangement from my own body, for the element of fire that constitutes jinn yearns to be delivered from the element of clay from which humans are created. In the epistles of the  esoteric Brethren of Purity we read , “[we] jinn are light flaming spirits, while humans are heavy earthy bodies […] we see them, but they do not see us, we move  through them, but they do not feel us, we surround them, but they do not touch us.”[3]

When my mother departed, I could not mourn properly. I could not write about her because her mode of presence had always been her very absence from me. The dearth of details about my mother and the endless emptiness that I felt towards her made the words to express her loss as difficult to grasp as the jinn; they are in my presence and see me, but I do not see them move around me. I find it difficult to grasp my thoughts when I sit down to write, as if the jinn flee right at the moment when I need them. 

When writing about my mother, I can only write in a “mother tongue,” which cannot be an ornamented classical Arabic language (beautiful as it is, it is no one’s mother tongue), nor can it be a purely colloquial Arabic because I did not learn Arabic from the maternal women in my life. In the original Arabic version, my text swings between standard and colloquial Arabic, just as I swing to and fro the masculine and the feminine, and just as jinns swing by as living beings without having a concrete body. 

Jinn, then, are creatures that live parallel to us and share the same space. I resort to Arabic’s system of linguistic derivation that has always opened doors for me that had been previously shut, or that I did not even know existed. Let’s look closely at the major derivation of the root j-n-n or what the linguist Ibn Faris calls miqyās al-mādda, or the semantic connections between the derivatives of the same root.[4]  

In this context it is difficult to speak about jinn without mentioning their opposite, al-ins, which according to Ibn Faris’  lexicon means the appearance of something. Thus, al-ins are contrary to the jinn, and they are called as such because they are apparent. In Arabic, a human is called insān, since to form a relationship of ins with someone or something, is to relate to it without fear or terror, and to take comfort in it. We are confronted with the binary of the apparent and the hidden, which also suggests that it is impossible to take comfort in the jinn. I did not have the opportunity to take comfort in my mother, for she had no tangible presence in my life except for three or four visitations, the first of which was when I was eight years old, as well as a few phone calls.  

Rana, my partner-in-tongues, calls attention to the linguistic connection between madness (junūn) and motherhood, which passes through the word fetus (janīn), the baby formed in its mother’s uterus, and which does not become human as long as it is inside the uterus. The fetus is connected etymologically with the madness of the mother who decides to transform her body into a vessel for a human protoplasm that has no specific form yet and no determined future.[5] Looking closely at the derivation of the root j-n-n, we find that “the jīm and the nun refer to shrouding and hiding.” Semantically, verbs coming from the root j-n-n carry meanings of hiding, covering, and shrouding: the junūn of the night is the darkness and its severity. Madness also derives from j-n-n, which is described as the covering of the mind until its corruption, and the majnūn is the mad person whose soundness of mind is shrouded. Relatedly, the junūn of plants refers to their extensions and their weavings, and the majnūn is the towering palm tree. Janna is a garden of trees and thick palms, and from it we derive the word for paradise in the afterlife. 

Rana moreover asserts that janīn (the fetus) signifies futurity. That may be true, but the derivation of janīn from that which is hidden within the womb leads to yet another derivation. Janin is also that which has been coffined up and buried, and janan signifies the grave and the coffin. So the janīn are the buried and entombed, those whose future has ended and passed; that is why we say, al-ḥiqd al-janīn, or suppressed resentment.  I was a fetus (janīn) in a mother’s womb who had been officially diagnosed as mad, and she became mad on my behalf (junnat ʿannī) after I was no longer enwombed. On her passing  she was to become the janīn. Because she was cremated and not buried, she did not become a jinn of the coffin but of the sea. We scattered her ashes over the waters of the Arabian Gulf from the shores of Bombay where she and my father lived in the early 1970s. I imagine her a jinniya, an apparition free from her visible and tired corporeal cage, a cage that never fit her. I imagine her in her oceanic paradise [jananiha al-baḥrī] instead of the soil of the earth. In this earth, other jinn grow, for the janīn is also the budding of a plant from a seedling embedded in the belly of the earth. If the earth blooms, it is said that it has become mad or frenzied [junnat, tajannanat], for it goes crazy without care. From this we derive paradise in Arabic, janna, denoting the earth that is covered by leaves of trees and plants, a paradise that is hidden from us until judgment day. We begin our lives as jinn, and we end our lives in hopes of a janna we are not sure exists. Is it not better to seek to become jinn after the death of our bodies, for the element of fire is more eternal and everlasting, requiring only air. I cannot ascertain from my sources, which include the Quran, whether the jinn are as mortal as human beings. As far as I am concerned, my mother lives on in her own janna, even if her human mold has died. I do not mean to say for certain that she is in paradise, but that I constantly feel her accompanying me, her janīn, her fetus, who comes from the place riddled with jinn, al-majanna

The schizophrenia that my mother suffered drives one mad by sidelining them into a reality of hallucinations and phantasms, which keep them corporeally present but absents or exiles them mentally. If we consider the root of schizophrenia in Arabic [infiṣām], we discern a single origin and meaning for f-ṣ-m, which is the invisible fissure or fracture of something. What a coincidence to arrive again at the invisibility of madness, an invisible fissure that cannot be located and is difficult to splint and restore. Madness, which is not externally apparent, ensnares  the human [al-insī] whose nature is to be apparent, which makes sociable relationships of caring for and showing affection to schizophrenics difficult to sustain. 

If the fetus, janīn, is linked to a mother’s madness [junūn], then I was a hidden fetus inside her body, only for her madness to be shielded from me. Madness, as a disorder and disruption of the mind is also one of the states  of love. This meaning goes beyond Arabic and reaches Farsi in which the word dīwāneh signifies both the demented and the lover at once. No wonder, for the janān is the hidden and concealed heart within the body. My father remained madly in love with my mother despite her madness. My father is the majnūn, the mad lover in every sense of the word. And how? My father, the man coming from Delhi[6] to pursue a PhD in physics, glimpsed a white American woman of Jewish origins called Joan (notice again the phonetic similarity between her name and the jinn)[7]; he caught a glimpse of her singing in a chorus, only for her voice to enchant his heart [janānihi] and make him crazed until he lost his mind. According to al-Jahiz, the ghūl is the name for anything jinn-related that waylays  travelers, and is usually disguised in various forms and outfits.[8] My mother came in the path of my immigrant father, but she entranced him, rather than entrapping him. True, she was a human of flesh and blood, but she had supernatural qualities, like the ability to absorb and soak up languages and cultures, often bewildering whoever she speaks to, especially with her knowledge of film and music.[9]

The janan are locations of sanctuary for what is hidden. People believe that psychotics and those with neuroses were possessed with jinn, so they would beat them to “expel” the demons from their bodies. My father tried to protect her in various ways by providing  her with sanctuaries from the harm and contempt society has for anyone who dares unsettle it. He shielded her madness and brought her back to America from India, for his love for her was jinn-like , in the sense that it persisted and lasted to this day! 

I was afraid to stir up his derision, he who swears by dialectic materialism and is not beholden to any religious creed. But he surprised me by encouraging me when I suggested the idea of linking her madness with the jinn, saying that there is truth to what I am saying. He pointed out her appreciation of Tagore’s poetry, which went far beyond any knowledge by one of his Bengali friends. He mentioned how she moved gracefully through Bombay’s markets, communicating and interacting  with marvelous agility as if she had grown up there. He says that there was something supernatural within her. Speaking of fluid movements, the mad beast is one that moves swiftly  and darts all over the place, possibly because  its movement resembles that of jinns

We find out that the jānn is a type of quick slithering and rattling serpent. Usually, the serpent carries negative connotations, just like the jinn. We imagine it to be a harmful animal, effecting what is contrary to its name in Arabic: killing rather than bringing to life [tuḥyī]. Both the jinn and the serpent are associated with the metaphysical. According to al-Jahiz, killing a serpent is so dangerous that an Arab is  compelled to save a serpent if he finds it stuck at the bottom of a well, “as if he seeks deliverance by coming closer to the jinn.”[10] I do not know how my mother moved when she was better, for when I met her it appeared as if her body was not hers and that she was exiled from it. The serpent, because of its flexible body, can reach places that no one expects it to reach. So could  my mother. Once, while traveling with my father in Vienna, she appeared in a piano bar singing a number from the 1920s’ Threepenny Opera in German, accompanied by the pianist as if she performed there every night! She shed the shields of modesty [mijann al-ḥayā’], and the mijann are shields that parry armaments in battle. My mother faced the cruelty of this world towards those with mental illnesses like the jinn who know how to brave confrontation without shields or protection, and who roam wherever they like. 

When she was able to work, my mother was a painter. I did not get to know most of her paintings, but the two I was able to see depict couples with ambiguous features. The heads and the bodies hint at being human but lack the proper contours, and we can neither classify them as human nor animal. Their features and expressions reveal neither happiness nor sadness. We do not have words in our human emotional lexicon to describe their appearance. I wonder what we know of the emotions of jinn, is their emotional topography similar to ours? Do they rejoice and grieve like us for the same reasons? The sources do not tell us much about the emotional world of jinns, except for their cruel intentions. From my perspective, these two paintings try to explore exactly that. 

Two untitled oil portraits by Joan Feldman Mubayi, 1979.
Retrieved from the personal archive of the author’s father.

Then I look at an early picture of her and my father, both in their mid-twenties, and in her eyes I find a mystique similar to that of the jinn. I cannot distinguish whether she is happy or if she is feigning a smile. I remember what my lover once said that she cannot discern anything from my eyes, that my eyes are big and beautiful, but that they do not reveal anything contrary to the eyes of most of the people she knows, as if I myself might be a jinn

Until recently, I would think, what a waste my mother’s life was. She seemed miserable while in the delirium of her deathbed, muttering to my father the words of a song from one of her favorite Bollywood films. We know that language distinguishes the human from all other creatures, but here, my mother seized some dignity and ability from her madness to remember a language she had not heard for decades with jinn-like facility. As her body withered away, she was able, if only for a moment, to subdue her madness through language, as if her ability to access foreign tongues signaled her kinship with the jinn. I realize now that my mother demonstrated to us that there is no such thing as a pure human or a pure jinn, and that this binary is breachable. A mother tongue can (sometimes) be the tongue of a jinn. Even though we are made of clay and not fire, we all (sometimes) become jinn by virtue of how we relate to our (various) language(s).[11]

I retrace my way back  from the jinn to the janīn [fetus]. When my mom became pregnant with me, she and my father decided to keep me because her condition  had improved. But she relapsed soon after my birth. She started hallucinating (and the hallucinations of schizophrenia are damaging and lack any Jahizian wittiness) that her milk was poisoned. She refused to breastfeed me because she wanted to protect me, but her deteriorated mind did not allow her to protect the human protoplasm she had allowed to grow in her womb. In Arabic, both “protect” [ḥimāya] and “birth” [wilāda] are irregular or “sick” [ʿilla] verbs for having a long vowel act as a consonant. Whereas ḥimāya ends with a long-vowel acting as a consonant, wilāda begins with one. Words like mother [umm], on the other hand, have doubled roots, characterized by having the same second and third letter in their root, as we also find in the words jinn and jidd [forefather]. These words are considered the oldest utterances in the Arabic language.[12] The word umm signifies the formative component of things, meaning that the root of “motherhood” in Arabic is ingrained morphologically and grammatically in the language. To mother (yaʾumm) is to go towards something or someone with intent. An imam, for example, is one who leads a prayer congregation. At the same time, “to mother”  a camel [amma ẓahra al-baʿīr] is to wound its back as you steer it.  I carry the mad wounds of motherhood within me. I was born a male to her, but with time I transitioned with all intention from the son of a mad woman to the daughter of a jinniyya. The Arabs say heaven is found under the feet of mothers, but because her madness is connected to her jinn-ness, I will say that my mother lives in the janna, or paradise of jinn

Photograph from the personal archive of the author’s father, mid-1960s. Photo courtesy of author.

Dedicated to my mother, whom I prefer to remember her as a jinniya rather than as a majnūna [madwoman], and to my majnūn father, who has never ceased to sing for his Layla. 


[1] Hussein Barghouthi, al-Sādin wa-l-Nāqa: Qiṣaṣ ʿan al-zaman al-wathanī, p. 23. The pre-Islamic Arabs believed in the relationship between the jinn and the poets whereby each major poet had a jinn who composed and dictated the poetry to be recited by the poet. According al-Qurashi’s Jamharat Ashʿār al-ʿArab, these jinn would inhabit a fantastical place called The Valley of ‘Abqar, from which the Arabic word for Genius (ʿabqarī) is derived. The Andalusian Ibn Shuhayd divided the jinn into two camps, the good and the evil, in his work, Risālat al-Tawābiʿ wal-Zawābiʿ (“The Epistle of Minions and the Devil”). 

[2]  al-Jāhiz, al-Bayān wa-l-Tabyīn, p. 89-90, translated by Peter Webb, Creating Arab Origins: Muslim Constructions of al-Jāhiliyya and Arab History. PhD Thesis. SOAS, University of London, p. 347. 

[3]  Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ wa khullān al-wafā, vol. II, epistle 8, p. 168. 

[4]  ʿAbd al-Salām Harūn, Introduction to Muʿjam maqāyīs al-lugha by Ibn Faris, p. 29, which works by trying to make an analogical template [maqāyīs] of Arabic roots. The connections I make here between my mother’s madness and jinn were evoked for me by looking at the semantic variations in the root j-n-n in the lexica of classical Arabic. I resorted to the major dictionaries like Lisān al-ʿArab, Qamūs al-Muḥīt, and Maqāyīs al-Lugha, in addition to the Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic. Out of pure coincidence, Ibn Faris provides the following example, “the name jinn is derived from the word al-ijtinān, to take cover.” 

[5]  Rana Issa, Ummiyyāt, al-Jumhuriya, December 2021. 

[6]  “Delhi […]was a city of djinns. Though it had been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt; each time it rose like a phoenix from the fire […] The djinns loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted. To this day every house, every street corner was haunted by them. You could not see them, said [Sufi elder] Sadr-ud-Din, but if you concentrated you would be able to feel them: to hear their whisperings, or even, if you were lucky, to sense their warm breath on your face.” William Dalrymple, City of Djinns: A Year In Delhi, p. 35. 

[7]  We see a phonetic similarity with Ibn Jinnī, the great linguist and author of the book al-Khaṣā’iṣ. His family name is not derived from jinn, but from the Greek word genus

[8]  Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, ed. Muhammad Basil ‘Uyūn al-Sūd, volume six, p. 398. 

[9]  To be fair, I have to clarify that my mother’s interest in Indian culture was not driven by her relationship with my father. This interest began before they met and was a serious appreciation, unlike the trend of Indian spirituality that spread in the West throughout the 1960s. 

[10]  Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, volume six, p. 341. 

[11]  A special thanks to Haytham al-Wardani for illuminating this point. 

[12]  In his semantic treatise Sirr al-layāl fī-l-qalb wa-l-ibdāl Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq suggests that this doubling is the origin of morphology and derivation in Arabic. 

Humans of Hamra

Artwork: Aline Deschamps," A woman looks at the Beirut Silos from her rooftop, one year after the Beirut blast”, Photography, 2021

In Hamra, banks and bars did not mix. During the day, banks were busy while bars were hush.  At night, banks were shut while bars were high. But nightlife is not possible without money, and money is not possible without banks. The humans of Hamra were hooked on both: bars by choice and banks by force.

Until a stormy day in October, when banks closed for good, and took the good times with them. The humans of Hamra stopped dancing and started marching. They replaced raised glasses with angry fists. They were not the only ones. Waves of humans flooded the city streets. They merged into one big sea. The banks became another brick in a wall that had to fall. Humans united will never be defeated. They pushed and pulled in every direction.

For a moment, the money priests got scared and the sectarian warlords got worried. Both huffed and puffed on media pulpits about the “uncivilized” humans at the gates. When no one listened, they called in humans for hire and built higher walls. A high wall was erected in Hamra to protect Riad the Joker, who pulled all the strings.  

Riad the Joker

Riad the Joker was a serious human with a serious mission: looking after the Lebanese lira. With little sweat and no blood, he closed financial deals for fat cats during times of war and controlled the money tap of the entire population during times of peace. For over a quarter century, he sat in his fortified throne at the mouth of Hamra street and opened the tap at a steady flow of 1500 liras to the dollar. Everyone seemed satisfied. The rich and powerful filled their tanks, while trickle economics took care of the rest. Or so claimed the rich and powerful. If the rest got anxious, Riad the Joker assured them that under his watch the lira will be ok. The banks were the crown jewel of their country, and he had a Midas touch.

Until a stormy day in October, when Riad the Joker repeated his joke that the lira is ok. No one laughed. The lira crashed. Lives were lost and livelihoods were destroyed. Riad the superhero became Riad the supervillain. He put on a poker face and pulled off more bad jokes. With the connivance of the rich and powerful, he transformed the country into a casino inside a circus. ATMs became broken slot machines. In the vaults of banks, the dollar became a lollar. In the pockets of humans, like Rida the Anonymous, the lollar became liras that melted into thin air.

Rida the Anonymous

Rida the Anonymous was a good listener and a hard worker. As a child, he slept between the covers of a book written by Anis the Author. Rida listened to the stories of Anis about distant memories of village life. Rida loved the countryside but lived in the city. When civil war broke out, he was too young to fight but too old to forget. He listened to the sound of bombs and the song of Ziad the Artist about the rising cost of lettuce. When Rida the Anonymous got older, he could not afford university. He worked at bars. He listened to the humans of Hamra chat and cheer while he served them food and drinks. They treated him like one of their own. But they talked and he worked. They drove and he walked. They traveled and he lived in the suburbs.

Until a stormy day in October, when Hamra felt like home. Rida the Anonymous stopped listening. He wanted to tell his own story. He would no longer be anonymous. He marched side by side with the humans of Hamra. Customers became comrades. Together, they cursed politicians, braved tear gas and dodged bullets. The revolution will set them free. Or so he thought. Soon enough, he started listening again to the humans of Hamra argue over everything. Humans divided will always be defeated. Rida the Anonymous got tired of listening. He went home and fell silent. He lost his faith in the humans of Hamra, but not his love for Rita the Rebel.

Rita the Rebel

Rita the rebel was an avid reader and a deep sleeper. At home, she grew up listening to fatherly sermons about the afterlife and dreaming of fun stories about nightlife. Like Rida the anonymous, she was too young to fight in the civil war but too old to forget. Unlike Rida, she could afford university, but barely. She could afford to travel, but barely. Hers was a generation lost. They lived in the space between the rural and the urban, the traditional and the modern, the local and the global.

Hamra was a space between. Half bubble half real. A mix of people and places that is hard to find elsewhere. Hamra had a history too. In the past, the humans of Hamra expelled occupation soldiers from cafes, hosted young poets in exile, and led student struggles in the streets. When in Hamra, Rita the Rebel spent the day in bookstores and the night on bar stools. She knew that her generation’s Hamra was a parody of the past, but a current refuge nonetheless.

Until a stormy day in October, when dreams of revolution were reignited. Rita the Rebel practiced what she preached. She stood in the frontlines alongside Rida the Anonymous rather than speak in front of the camera like Paula the Pretender or write in reactionary papers like Hazem the Hypocrite. For a moment, Rita thought that the wall would fall and Riad the Joker would be expelled from his golden tower in Hamra. But the money priests and the sectarian warlords struck back with a vengeance. The crowds dwindled, the radicals retreated, and the self-proclaimed reformers with a taste for power took center stage.

After a pandemic and an explosion, Hamra felt like a purgatory. Rita became disillusioned but never indifferent. As she roamed the increasingly dilapidated streets and looked for familiar faces, pain filled her chest and doubts filled her mind. Should she stay or should she go? She did not know the answer. But one thing was certain. She loathed Riad and longed for Rida.

****

For three decades, people like Rita, Rida and Riad peacefully co-existed in Hamra. Unlike Beirut’s downtown, Hamra was not reinvented as a parody of itself during Lebanon’s postwar reconstruction. Many of Hamra’s landmark cafes, bars, theaters and bookstores were shut down after the war. But in due course, others sprang up, and the area remained a meeting place for a new generation of journalists, artists, writers, activists, and after the Arab uprisings, political refugees. The leftist and middle class character of many Hamra goers also survived the postwar reconstruction – even if this character acquired liberal undertones, with civil society replacing political parties as the frame of activity and discourse.   

During this postwar period, the salience of Hamra’s progressive spaces had obscured the longtime presence of private banks – most notably the central bank headquartered at the street’s east end. The October 17 uprisings brought to the fore the contrast between the two. The Ritas and the Ridas of Hamra joined forces against Riad, and the power that he represents. The moment of unity in protest that emerged held the promise of a more radicalized Hamra where discourses of class struggle beyond performative politics are articulated, circulated, and used to mobilize against banker power.

Almost three years after the uprising, this promise remains unfulfilled. The vibrancy of Hamra has faded. Pockets of social encounters and cultural activity have survived, but the strong sense of collective intimacy has yet to return. More importantly, those who experienced the uprising on the streets of Hamra also experienced the limits of imagining change in isolation of the hard realities beyond its environs. To be fair, the apparent decline of Hamra, compared to other neighborhoods like Badaro, largely an NGO town, or Mar Mkhayel, largely a party strip, reflects a deep sense of connectedness between Hamra and Beirut writ large. Hamra embodies the vicissitudes of Beirut. In that sense, the humans of Hamra, whatever their fate, will always hold one of the main keys to their city’s past, present and future. 

In the Line of Fire (Oh Brother)

Photo by Omar Dewachi: Jumhuriya Bridge, Baghdad, during the 2019 popular protests
Photo by Omar Dewachi: Jumhuriya Bridge, Baghdad, during the 2019 popular protests

What drugs will not cure, the knife will; what the knife will not cure, the cautery will; what the cautery will not cure must be considered incurable.

– Hippocrates

A call from the surgical residence in the outpatient clinic informing us of a new admission to the ward. “It is a burn case,” he warns, “Najwa Abdul Hadi, female, in her early 30s, transferred from a local hospital with burn injuries covering nearly 90% of her body following the explosion of a cooking gas container at her home.” Mohammed and I, the two junior doctors on the floor, rushed to the other side of the ward, impatiently waiting at the service elevators to receive our new admission. Only days into our surgery rotation on the second floor of Baghdad Teaching Hospital—Iraq’s largest referral hospital and medical complex—we had finished medical school a month earlier, in May 1997. This was our first job as “real” doctors. Unlike Mohammed who had studied medicine at another med school, I had spent the past 6 years of my training in this teaching medical complex, and was familiar with the ins and outs of the hospital. Still, this was a new terrain for me. No longer a student, this night was my first time “on call”, and I was getting a bit anxious.

For many of us who lived through the first Gulf war, the sight of a burnt body became a doppelgänger of that war. One such doppelgänger was the charred body of one Iraqi soldier in the carnage of tanks which littered what became known as the “Highway of Death”—where the retreating convoys of thousands of Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait were attacked by the US military with Depleted Uranium (DU) weaponry. DU was developed in the US during the Cold War era and experimented with for the first time in real combat during the 1991 Iraq War. It was designed to burn through thick metal surfaces, namely tanks and fortified armored vehicles. The artillery tips burn through the thick alloy, incinerating them inside and out upon impact.

Another image of that war, which I witnessed for myself, was the silhouette of two skeletal remains fossilized into the concrete walls inside the famous Amiriya Shelter, where 408 people were killed with so-called bunker busting, “smart bombs.” US pilots nicknamed them “the hammer” for their massively destructive capabilities and wide-ranging blast radii. I visited the Amiriya shelter in 1991 after the cessation of the bombing campaign. I remember thinking that it was a blessing that those in the bunker did not suffer for long. It was more merciful and dignified to die on the spot than to endure the effects of surviving such brutalization.  

Medicine’s relationship with burnt flesh is multifaceted. Burning is both a pathology and a technology of healing. Doctors care for burn wounds and have developed specializations around its therapeutics. On the other hand, as a technology, the use of cauterization is an ancient therapeutic technique that dates to the Greeks and is widely used in local healing traditions like Galenic and Arabic Medicines. In modern surgery, high electric currents are regularly applied to bleeding vessels during operations to control and stop hemorrhages. Heat cauterization technologies are also used in cancer treatment, alongside radiotherapy, applied to tissues to kill cancer cells and allow the organs to regenerate themselves. Today, doctors can insert a very thin catheter through the body’s vascular system and guide it to the site of localized malignancies. Then, the radiologist will release small nano pallets through the tiny vessels to “burn” the localized cancer tissue with utmost precision. An intervention radiologists described to me as applying a small “nuke” to the affected tissue.

Burn victims need special care and management. The skin is the largest organ of the body. It is responsible for regulating the body’s temperature and protecting it from external factors like chemicals and bacteria. A burn is like a wound, a precarious openness to the outside world. Burn victims are at risk of dehydration as the body begins to lose more fluids through the compromised skin. Infections may ensue as the body becomes exposed. Burn units are designed with the highest sanitation measures to maintain a protective environment, supply the patient with intravenous fluids, and apply different techniques of burn care to keep the affected parts moist and clean. Burns could scar into contractures, a shortening of skin and muscles that lead to deformities and rigidity of joint mobility. Doctors opt to surgically release the scarred tissue and transplant muscles and skin from other parts of the body to facilitate restoring functionality and cosmetics.

It was an unusually hot June day in Baghdad. We were still weeks aways from Iraq’s hottest month of the year, which residents call Aab el lahhab, or flaming August. With such extreme heat and no proper ventilation, the ward would become increasingly stuffy come the midday sun. The air-conditioning system had been turned off for almost seven years, a casualty of America’s 1991 “Desert Storm” and subsequent sanctions.

Patients, their escorts, and the hospital staff, desperately sought any breeze from the floor’s open windows to no avail. Abu Ali’s family, in room 5 brought their own punka, electric fan. Suad’s sister in room 7 used hospital folders to move the hot air, and flies, away from her face. On days like this, I want to tear away my medical gown and do my rounds shirtless. On my break, I would use some of that Iraqi perverse innovation, a response to our chronic scarcity under sanctions, and buy a huge block of ice, throw it in the hospital’s roof water tanks, and dip in it for hours. The joke went, “With such heat, no wonder Iraqis are not afraid of God’s hell.”

The door slid open. I saw Farhan, the manual operator of the hospital’s crumbling elevator system, struggling with Adnan, the ER nurse, to move the stretcher out of the elevator’s door without hitting its edges. The staff at the emergency room had made a makeshift tent over her body to protect her frail skin. The fading white color, yellow stains on the sheet, made it appear unclean. This sheet was obviously past its glory days, the smell of cheap cleaning detergent from the laundry room lingering.

At the time, this hospital did not have a specialized burn unit. Given the situation of the collapsed infrastructure, the entire hospital had become an ecology of major risk for patients as infections ran amok. Most of the quarantine, sanitization and sterilization equipment were compromised or had ceased to work. Doctors were reusing disposable gloves and needles and we had no clean water. As an alternative, the admitting physician opted to isolate Najwa on our “regular” floor. While each room on the floor would usually host 6 patients, Najwa was lucky enough to be put in a room on her own.

It took me some time to adjust to the overwhelming sight of the scalded body. From head to toe, Najwa’s brown complexion was scraped, leaving red and black patches of burnt skin the color of a rotting pomegranate. Her face was disfigured beyond recognition and most of her hair, including eyebrows, was consumed in the fire.

For close to a week, and to little avail, Mohammed and I tried to manage the burns and ease her pain. Najwa rarely spoke to us in conversational terms. She was restless and in constant agony; moaning and screaming in pain and anger, sometimes expressing herself through seemingly incoherent words. she was trying to tell us a story that none of us understood, or maybe cared to listen to. We were too concerned with keeping her alive, sedated and hydrated. Mohammed and I alternated on caring for her body daily, washing it with soap and water, changing dressings, and replacing the IV line when the skin around the needle showed signs of infection. We used every antibiotic we were able to get hold of to boost her body’s ability to fight back.

Najwa had no visitors, except for her brother Ahmed. I learned that she had three children, though I never saw them, nor did I ever meet her husband. Ahmed was a pharmacist and was in and out of the floor daily. He was devastated and spent hours next to his sister. He would leave to bring her medication and come back. With the scarcity of medical supplies at the hospital, Ahmed maintained the daily stock. He showed up every morning with a plastic bag full of medical provisions that he either brought from his private pharmacy or purchased on the black market.

I arrived at the hospital in the morning to take over from Mohammed. He was on call the night before. I found him finishing up his morning rounds. We walked together as he started filling me in with patient updates. “Najwa died last night” he said as his voice struck a sad note. I felt the weight of the news. It was not a shock, we both expected this outcome; she had been running an uncontrollable fever for the last seventy-two hours. We both had put so much effort to take care of her. This ephemeral relationship with patients was something we were becoming accustomed to both as doctors, but more so as caretakers working in such a depleted setting.

A week later, I saw Mohammed in the floor’s corridor. He brought up Najwa for the last time, “Did you know that Najwa’s burns were not due to an accident?” He stared at me inquisitively. “They were self-inflicted,” he continued, “she tried to kill herself.” Suddenly everything made sense. Self-immolation was a very common method of suicide in Iraq, especially among younger women. Mohammed went on, “Had I known this, I would not have put so much effort in taking care of her. This is against God’s will, it is haram.” I knew Mohammed was a religious person, but his words fell on me like those merciless bunker busters. We had a heated argument about his sentiments and mine, but were unable to reach any kind of understanding.

That night, I was on call. I did my rounds, went to have a bite, and returned to my room on the floor. That night, I slept like a baby. 

*Excerpts from Forthcoming book manuscript, “When Wounds Travel: Ecologies of War and Healthcare East of the Mediterranean”


“I Smothered the Sun” by Omar Dewachi
Inspired by Etel Adnan’s book length poem, “The Arab Apocalypse”
Recorded as a one-take performance, June 28, 2022
Voice: Rawya El Chab. Mastered by Ziad Moukarzel

Second Letter Against the Language (To Sean Bonney)*

Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.
Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.

There are names which cannot be pronounced, yet no transaction occurs without them. These words of immense power circulate in an economy of self-silencing voices. If these words are screamed however, pulled from our throats and exploded with rage, they can rip our ears and destroy our hearing. Only then can we listen to the murmurs that have always surrounded us. The echoes of those who breathed their last in a word of power. Each death hosted in the crevice of a letter. T H E R E S A. Each space a life made possible again. A passage extending from the dead to the living, and from the living to the dead.

Cadavers

These inaudible murmurs never stop shrieking. They are not faint whispers of something obscure, but a familiar hum that suddenly splinters into a spirited, fragmented rhythm. You pointed to such “unheards” and danced to them for days on end at Berlin’s Landwehrkanal. A body of water whose life-ness is interrupted by death, historical and contemporary.

The Landwehrkanal was built in the nineteenth century along the Spree river, connecting its upper and lower parts which cross Berlin from east to west. It was built to facilitate the transportation of goods such as raw sugar, tobacco, and coffee coming into the city, goods carried by ships, across the seas, from the colonies. This canal is not the work of nature, but a product of the labor of many. During the construction of the canal, in the midst of the revolution of 1848, many workers were killed after protesting their working conditions. Months after the spark ignited by the  1918-19 revolution, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered and her body thrown in the canal. There are many other bodies there, omitted from history’s canon. Remains dissolved in the waters of the canal to this day and corpses whose enforced labor latched onto the goods transported here. Corpses as collateral to life in the city. This history of violence and resistance is what gives the canal its sounds, this is what prevents its silence.

But these sounds, and others like them, remain drowned by what you called that “auditory bleach” that flattens all. And their tune is replaced by an alien sound that renders the living helpless cadavers. The bleach tames the spectrum of hearing and, in turn, mutes speech and writing into language. A language made for the living with purchase only in the land of the dead. A currency alienating both worlds and keeping their timelines apart. And yet I think of you at the canal pronouncing words of power straight out into the water. “Theresa May.” “Stephan Crabb.” Are you longing for something to creep through the sounds you produce? Are you voicing those words to disturb your hearing? Are you practicing the magic Pasolini proposed, and transmuting those names into sheer anger?

There must be then within language or on its edges–in its words and alphabet–gaps or fissures from which to make space again for those inaudible sounds. A derived form of poetic labor to unwork the configurations of this lingual stuckness. The “long systematic derangement of the senses” is a project for the destruction of contemporary subjectivity. In 1967, Amiri Baraka wrote about a specific, electrifying sound. The Screamers. A short fiction on the famous real-life saxophonist Lynn Hope whose wailing riff extends beyond music as an incarnation of hatred, anger, and despair. A sound so ugly that it becomes “a basis for thought” in and of itself.  Hope repeats that sound over and over until it spills not only outside the confines of music, but of sound, of the city, shattering harmony, defying the police. Hope screams his “personal evaluation of the world” with a power that ruptures the very world it emerges from. Thinking with Baraka in 2011, you singled out Live in Seattle. The sound of one horn producing “a dimensional time-loop”, a Benjaminian monad of a past that was never realized. This potential energy from 1965 appears as eternally postponed and up for grabs. A counter-currency for today. I listened to b jenkins the other day. Moten’s vocals interrupt Lopez’s bass and Cleaver’s drums and out jumps a distorted signal of a choir of thinkers. Of friends. Theirs, mine, and yours. A choir of historical moments. “A phonic materialism of what appears not to be  phonic.”

The collective work of the past can only emerge when individual senses are honed to their fullest. Hope’s scream. The monadic horn. Moten’s “reading”. You repeatedly screamed out those words of power. Perhaps it is from within the voice that this operation of the senses can play out. Mladen Dolar’s intervention into Walter Benjamin’s famous Theses on the Concept of History proposes a similar undertaking. Dolar rewrote: “If the puppet called historical materialism is to win, it must enlist the services of the voice.” Neither mere deliverer of a word’s meaning nor pure aural stimulation, Dolar’s voice insists upon itself as a “lever of thought”. It operates between sound and language yet belongs to neither. “Voices are the texture of the social.” An operation that exists across space and time. Benjamin lends his voice to Dolar. Rimbaud to you. You to me. The voice never materializes fully into an aesthetic object nor does it completely disintegrate into abstract meaning-production. It is the point of failure of both. The failure of becoming all-encompassing. The blind spot of both meaning and form. Of politics and aesthetics. Of language in its two faces.

Vowels are the scream-to-come contained in every unpronounceable name. They are the moments in which voices come into contact with words. Not as a seamless unit but as a couple, mismatched. Can the articulations of vowels be pushed into this disjointedness? Can vowels force out sounds that pierce through time? “When a specific distortion in the vowels is achieved we can hear heaven.” A vowel is the sound of Hope’s horn that moves “with the elegance of something that is too ugly to describe.” A vowel is that moment in Live in Seattle, an asynchronous presence that only appears when the orbit of the past collides with the now. A vowel is Moten, Lopez, and Cleaver as an ensemble of many more than three. At this exact point, a vowel may deviate from its usual sound, and through the bleach our ears may perceive inaudible vibrations. Are these vibrations of the past or the future? Voices of the dead or the living? They mirror the cry of the factory owner in the last scene of Pasolini’s Theorem. When referencing it in your Letter against the Language, you wondered if he let it out as he entered the kingdom of the living or as he left it.

Scaffolds

In late 2019 or early 2020 or yesterday, I left my flat in Neukölln to somewhere I no longer recall. An A4 sheet hung on a makeshift wall salvaged from the construction site next door. I barely noticed it. I got closer.

“for ‘I love you’ say fuck the police”

“for ‘alarm clock’ say fuck the police”

“for ‘make it new’ say fuck the police”

I ran my fingers across the recurring phrase, my hand unable to pull itself away from the words. Over and over, my fingers brushed the contours of your writing. Hours later, I finally made it to the meeting. I sat there with many others and to every question my hand responded reciting your lines. “How are you?”  My hand slowly picked up a glass of water and smashed it to the floor. “How was your day?” Another glass broken. “What are you doing?” My hand ripped the posters that covered the walls. 

Question after question, every part of that space was destroyed. And my hand kept going. Then, there was dust everywhere, and suddenly the air was sucked out of the room completely, forcing a vacuum that shattered all the windows near me. Everyone screamed. I laid there on the ground. Fires erupted. Blood. Moments later, I finally managed to stand myself up and run away. But somewhere inside that room my hand was still screaming.

The vowel called Sean or Bonney lived in Berlin in the second decade of the twenty-first century, studied magic, utopia, and weaponry, and died before that decade was over, leaving Berlin as he had first arrived to it… The exiled reach the city in waves – at every historical juncture. Fleeing defeat. Escaping prisons and trauma. Dead who do not want to bury their dead. You came here from London after the student protests there. You may have come to escape madness, rapid gentrification, or to flee from defeat and the daily poisons that crush the senses. Berlin is a map of hope and failure. A star cluster that arose by chance on the edge of an ancient black hole. But it is also a map of neo-fascism and capital. Down the street, the far-right torched cars and attacked shops and cafes. On Liebigstrasse, Rigaer Strasse, Weisestrasse the police violently enforced evictions. On Adalbertstrasse, an old musician committed suicide after the landlady expelled him. The lives of many pour out onto Berlin’s streets yet these streets have become machines for reproducing the labor of the senses, not for disturbing it.

In this city, vowels can die. And when vowels die, or get killed, they become stones. But stones can be a weapon too. Perhaps outdated, but still capable of damaging the large digestive tract that has swallowed everything whole. Stones can break the teeth of those who chew them, dry the saliva of those who swallow them, and upset the intestines of those who digest them. Stones will smash windows. Stones will light up when the power goes out. Cement blocks will close down roads. Pebbles will slip through the slots of ATMs and lodge there. As for fallen comets, they will vibrate with frequencies from stars that died long ago, waking us up in the darkness of our rooms. Us? Those who live at the heart of this deadly gut. Those with senses hijacked, whose eyes are blinded by the lights, whose ears are silenced by the soundtrack of the everyday, whose speech is impaired by the death of vowels. Those who walk with their senses exiled to a distant prison, or drenched in bleach.

Bones

You titled your last book Our Death. In the poem that carries the book’s title, you wrote, in the voice of an other, that you only care for things that fall unseen, those that remain without an image and without a name. You wrote that after you came across a dead man. It was something that could not be photographed. As you stood there, you pictured yourself amongst remnants of entire calendars smashed by the man’s death. What you saw break was the line that forms a boundary engraved in time and geography. A line not palpable to the existing sensory capacities of you and I. When you returned three hours later to the same place, you found nothing. Neither  the man nor the people that gathered around him. But you knew that his death, though no longer visible, would remain there forever.

Our Death. In order to say “our death”, we must first learn to say “we”.  But what is this “we” that gathers the living and the dead? The non-living with the living? What kind of “we” can bring together you and I without bleaching us into sameness? Where is this “we” that can accommodate all those exiled? The defeated? All things? All senses? What is the shape of this “we” that is neither an “I” in which everyone melts nor a negation of “I”? If there is a possibility for such a “we”, it is in language. You once wrote, “speak the language of the dead.” This is neither metaphor, nor an alternative language carried in words, but one that crawls through the wreckage of words.  And so “we” is not a word that can be easily placed upon the tongue of an “I”. Rather, it can be uttered only when the tongue is cut off and the “I” is cracked.

The “I” performs the basic function of a lyrical voice–a speaking subject. Frances Kruk proposes the “cracked I”. The cracks are the tiny figurative spaces in which a history of violence, even one not personally encountered, is processed, scrambled, and shot back out into the world. “The I is an other.” This history emerges through an uncertain “I” that is not able to express itself in a completely coherent language.

Only when “I” becomes such a vowel can we then say “we”. An untimely we. A “we” of those who tried and did not succeed. Those who resisted and did not win. Those who came from the future. We? 1662. 1968. 1771. 2020. 1830. 2011. 1850. “We” does not refer to a possible collectivity, but it is a practice of an impossible one that emerges from the collapse of the first. We are always an “ensemble of the living and the dead”. A collectivity that does not appear to our senses, but one that is barred, and that requires effort and labor, and a long and organized disturbance of the senses in order to emerge.

To say ”we” in the language of the dead, is to say that we, the living, are penetrated by the demands of the dead. It is to learn an impossible language. The impossible is the future dreamed by those who left, and which we, who came after them, could not yet achieve. The possible always involves the impossible. But we do not see it or hear it because our senses have been trained to disable it. Without another language, we cannot see or hear the labor of the dead.

The labor of the dead is working against being petrified into dead labor, or capital. Marx learned about dead labor from listening to the language of the non-living. If political economy, as proposed by Smith, is the language of the living, then the criticism of political economy is learning the language of the dead. Marx listened to the words of commodities, and learned from them the difference between living and dead labor. He learned from them the meaning of value, of surplus. Smith’s invisible hand of the market, which facilitates the accumulation of capital, is in Marx, the hand of an alienated and exploited laborer that works even in death.

The impossible language is precisely the language of all that drowns in bleach: senses, flesh, and bone. It is a defective language because of a history of violence and could therefore be the strongest weapon against it. A language that appears only as “all of our languages will sparkle and burn.”  It is a language of countless vowels killed and turned to stones. It is a language of countless vowels yet to be screamed.  It is a language of vowels, dead and alive. And one we must learn so that we can live together.

This text is indebted to many thinkers and writers. References to their works are not limited to what is mentioned in quotation marks, but also enter into the fabric of the text and its content. This is in conversation with Bonney’s own work. In Letter against the Firmament he writes:“Many of these poems, especially The Commons, and the first handful of Letters, contain a number of unattributed quotations. This is in the tradition of what in some areas of folk music is known as a ‘cuckoo song’, where the singer will intersperse their own lyrics alongside whatever fragments of other songs happen to come to mind, thus creating a tapestry or collage in which the ‘lyric I’ loses its privatied being, and instead becomes a collective, an oppositional collective, spreading backwards and forward through known and unknown time. These sources, just as in the old songs my work is inspired by, will remain anonymous. My ideal reader is one who would recognise some, if not most of them.”

Many thanks to all who contributed to its writing: Sean Bonney, Arthur Rimbaud, Karl Marx, Fred Moten, Walter Benjamin, Amiri Baraka, Frances Kruk, Aimé Césaire, Keston Sutherland, Rosa Luxemburg, Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa, Cedric Robinson, Mladen Dolar, Sylvia Wynter, CLR James, Octavia Butler, Kodwo Eshun, the SWRG, and many others.


* The title of this text picks up the thread from Sean Bonney’s Letter against the Language, which was published in his last book Our Death in 2019. Sean Bonney (1969-2019) is a ghost, or an anarchist poet, born and raised in Britain. He lived the last few years of his short life in Berlin, where he died in 2019. In his writings, Bonney is concerned with the return of the dead and with finding a literary form for the social antagonisms that have claimed their lives. He often recalls the legacy of anarchist philosophy and poetry in their broad sense. His long poem Letter against the Language records the arrival of the speaking “I” in a new city whose words it cannot utter, not because it cannot speak the new language, but because these words of power require an anti-magic to utter them. The poem evokes the specter of Pasolini who writes in one of his last texts that those very inexpressible words are names. The “names of those responsible for the massacres.” This new city that the poem”s “I” arrives to is the same city in which the speaking subject of this text writes. A speaking subject, a writer and another, have all arrived to this city at different times, at different historical moments, and for different reasons. Berlin, which over time has become a city of many ghosts fleeing defeat and the impossibility of life. This text could not have been written in any other city, as the writers of the text first became acquainted with Sean Bonney’s poetry after his death. Much of what is contained in this text is an attempt to pick up the thread of writing from his texts, in the hope of preserving the weak thread that connects the future of the living to the past of the dead.

Sidewalks of Beirut

Artwork: Aline Deschamps, "Watching Ramlet el Baida beach for the first time" extract of the series "I am not your animal", Photograph. 2021

I make eye contact with him and smile. I walk past him, then turn around to see if his eyes are still fixed on me. He discretely gestures at me and my friend to come over. He wears a wide grin crowned by a neatly trimmed mustache—the type that was common among men of all ages in Syria up to the late ‘90s, and continues to persist there and in parts of Iraq today. My friend and I scuttle along the corniche westwards. It’s almost quarter to eight and we are still by the Ain Mreisseh mosque, and if we want to make it to our eight o’clock dinner by the Manara, we would have to rush. Getting cruised by this handsome man was not a part of our schedule that night.

We navigate the wide sidewalk, past the families smoking their arghilehs under the no arghileh signs posted by the Beirut Municipality. A jogger in a complete Lululemon outfit wizzes by. She is much faster than us, despite our hurried pace. The fishermen lined up along the railing at their usual spots, in front of the old fishermen’s port—what (or perhaps who?) will they catch tonight? We slow down to watch one of the teenagers nosedive (or better, bellyflop) from the railing into the water. How high is that jump? 20 meters? The young woman seated on the ground with an infant in her lap asks me if I want to buy gum from her again: “not this time,” I say.

My friend is Palestinian, but like me, has lived most of his life outside the region. I use the opportunity to explain to him how cruising works on this uniquely wide sidewalk of the city. Between the sound of the crashing waves and the cacophony of the car traffic, our conversation is (thankfully) concealed and our privacy preserved.

We hold our breath as we walk past the sewer that dumps its contents directly into the water. We try to convince ourselves that it is stormwater, but the smell reveals otherwise. It is still technically winter, and the beach at the American University of Beirut has not officially opened yet. But as we stride by, we make sure that we take a good look at the men who have taken over the beach, playing their sports on its bare concrete grounds. A young man is hiding behind a massive bouquet of transparent balloons wrapped in multicolored LED lights, selling them to nagging children and couples going on first dates. He looks like a character from a Miyazaki film. A Black couple leans against the railing, facing the sea, probably to avoid seeing the spectrum of gazes of the passers-by. Their own gazes sway between each other and the sea. The tiling under our feet delineates a lane for cyclists, but neither cyclists nor pedestrians acknowledge it. Miraculously, I have not witnessed any significant collisions, yet.

Our eyes scan the people of the corniche. If my friend and I hold hands, can we pass for Syrians? Or will we be spotted as homos first? Do we want to put ourselves in danger like that? Practically, I am Syrian, but not to the eyes of the corniche goers, I think.

It’s eight o’clock. On a different night, I would walk my friend down all 4.8 kilometers of this sidewalk. We would absorb all the encounters that it facilitates. But tonight, we hop on Bus number 15 and ride all the way down to Manara. One thousand liras each is our fare. A reasonable price, in a different epoch before the 2019 economic crises.

***

17 October happens, and the protest square is barricaded and reclaimed. Suddenly, the corniche is no longer the only public space in the city. The downtown, now restored to its original name, وسط البلد—turns from a network of streets into a large network of sidewalks. Even the Ring road, normally a congested urban highway, becomes a sidewalk (and occasionally a living room, when the protestors blockaded the road and furnished it accordingly). All the activities that used to belong to the corniche now happen here as well. The commerce, the leisure, and even the jogging—back and forth from the teargas and the police line.

And of course, there is the cruising. There is so much cruising, because there are so many of us at the front lines. On a telephone exchange box under the Ring Road and across from the Armenian Catholic Cathedral, someone has spray painted a declaration: “ثورة قوم لوط”, meaning “Revolution of the Sodomites”. I cannot tell, is the artist (yes, whoever drew this is an artist) declaring their own sexuality? Or is the statement meant as a mockery of the protestors? Is it actually both?

In his book “Unsettling the City”, Nicholas Blomley reads such public interventions as supplications. Is this statement actually a supplication as well? Is it a wish for a Beiruti Stonewall Rebellion to replace the repeatedly failed Beiruti Pride Parade? A wish for a reconfiguration of the fragile equilibrium of social relationships that has shaped the city thus far?

“من الصيفي: ثورة قوم لوط” [From Saifi: Revolution of the Sodomites] Photo by @Sanaakhouri (Twitter), 2019.

The location of the supplication is in one of the highest traffic areas of the city. Under the Ring bridge, surrounded by highways and speedy Van 4s, it is at a location extremely hostile to pedestrians. The protestors for a few days turned the city center into a space dedicated for foot traffic, instead of car traffic. They slowed the circulation of people and materials in the urban fabric, and forced us to look and read. The supplication is reconstituting the underpass as a space of slow engagement. It invites us to see it, and in return, it sees us. In a way, it is a reimagination of urban citizenship, transformed away from its intended function, and supplanted with a space of possibility.

***

Sidewalks are a unique space in the city: they are a human-paced buffer, standing between the static buildings (even though in Beirut buildings get demolished and change very quickly), and the motorized speed of the street (even though Beirut traffic is sometimes slower than foot traffic). Pedestrians, who not long ago, used the entire width of the street, are pushed to its margins. The marginal space that remains is precious: it enables us humans, made of flesh and moving at less than 1 meter per second, and our brains processing information even more slowly, to encounter each other. 

On the other end of the sidewalk usage spectrum is another Mediterranean city with a conflicted relationship to the water that created it: Venice. Lacking in motorized vehicles, Venice has only sidewalks. As you use your feet to move around the city, it reveals itself with instant familiarity and intimacy. The sidewalk tugs you into the city’s fabric, and cradles you as you navigate it. Intimate human encounters are the default, sometimes annoyingly so. 

But Beirut’s sidewalks—where they exist in the first place—are notoriously unusable. It is not unusual to see parents who have opted to push their child’s stroller on the street instead of the sidewalk. Scenes of solidarity, of strangers helping each other climb the impossibly high curbs, are commonplace. But I sometimes wonder if the city intentionally makes our most basic function, like walking from one place to another, a continuous struggle. Does the city want us to suffer, in order to revolt? Are the sidewalks cluttered with obstacles as an invitation for mutual aid? Or are they a punishment, driven by the same logic through which the city deprives its many vulnerable inhabitants—Palestinians, refugees, migrants—as if cruelly seeking their misery?

If sidewalks are an infrastructure of care, does their absence in Beirut indicate malicious neglect?

***

The revolution square and the Corniche are connected by a series of haphazardly maintained sidewalks.

I take the Ring road back westwards, and I walk on a sidewalk that straddles the shoulder of a three-lane urban highway on the one side, and a highly restricted military zone on the other. Here I remember that this eclectic collection of parking lots, awkwardly restored buildings, and luxury homes is also what used to be Beirut’s Jewish neighborhood. I walk by—as one of the rare pedestrians who dare to walk along the same route as Van 4—and I feel the gap that is left by the absence of those who lived here not too long ago. I wonder: what encounters could have happened on this sidewalk, but will never happen now?

There is an absence that results from the evacuation/expulsion of the Jews of Beirut. A rupture of the urban fabric, now mostly parking lots. We will never know what encounters we missed, on this street.

***

Whether it is revolutionary encounters or a clandestine sexual encounter (itself revolutionary in its own way), sidewalks grant us the possibility of seeing each other. As such, they function as an infrastructure of care. In a world where the automobile accelerated our separation, where every person is isolated in their air-conditioned glass-and-metal machine of death mounted on four wheels, we reserve a margin between buildings where we can walk with little fear. The sidewalk tells us that we are not alone. It tells us that, at least in theory, the urban plan has extended this margin of space between the static building and the dynamic road for us to move at a human speed. To encounter each other. To exchange glances, to hold hands, and occasionally to turn around and find the other man looking back, with confirmed interest, at you.

Three Poems

Artwork: Sajjad Abbas, 2019
Artwork: Sajjad Abbas, 2019

[Safaa al-Sarray (1993-2019) was an Iraqi revolutionary poet and artist. He was killed by Iraqi security forces during the 2019 uprising and became one of its icons and a national figure. These poems were chosen from his posthumous collection of poems.]

I am so sad
so hungry
for people
that I forgot the taste
of wild lilies
in my soul
I stood at the window of life
drunk on its dew
with my tongue
I drew a cottage
for what remained
of my pain
and a brook of dew

The color of night pains me
Night becomes night by separation
all of life’s worries came to visit me
as did the faces
of my boon companions
and the glass

But Iraq never came

Night becomes night by separation

2

O Lord!
god of shaky ceilings
of lost dreams
god of drunkards
and distant dark stations
O Lord!
by your failure and weakness
and your mercy
out of order since you kindly gifted my mother death
O Lord!
By your pride which we scarred
By your power over the poor
By your pride over paupers
O Lord!
By your gifts
which you bestow on the rich
who need nothing from you
O god of frail ceilings
Crush me
As you did before
As you usually do
So that I may stand over my destruction
Screaming to your face
O god of shaky ceilings
and drunkards
Create sadness for yourself
and be crushed
Like me

3

I confess
Now that I’ve come out innocent
of the universe’s womb
that I still am
innocent
were it not for desires
for all the sorrow on this silver body
and this birthmark between breasts

I confess
before your courts now
that I’m guilty of sorrow and lust
That my heart is a cemetery for butterflies
Whatever enters it emerges multiplied with worries
and sorrow
I never thought the night would be so long
to outlast my drunkenness

My crime
I was eloquent in love
as honest as a coffin
never deceiving anyone
And now I am clouds
never revealing what’s behind
even if it is a sun
longing tricks me
I read the unseen in lightning
with your scent in my chest
I cast away coughs
and scatter the sand
touched by birds in Maysan on my eyes
My longing is extreme
It has become the key
to locked boxes
Oh this grain of sand in my eye
those birthmarks on the forearm have grown
the bite is no longer a refuge

Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon. From Diwan Ibn Thanwa: Safa’ al-Sarray (Takween, 2021).

No one will ever know what it's like to be a Ghost

Artwork: Maxime Hourani, still from "HOMO FINIS", Film, 2022.

My mother passed out on the night of December 22, 1984 when her gynecologist, tipsy at a Christmas gathering, mistakenly directed the nurse over the phone to give her a general anesthetic instead of a local one. When the doctor arrived in the morning, he delivered a baby that was, in medical slang, “a blue baby.” My brother was blue, they explained to my mother, because of a heart anomaly which would improve with an incubator. In Al-Ahram newspaper, my family wrote a thank you letter to the doctor who also owned the hospital. Months later, the newborn felt floppy in his mother’s arms. His head wouldn’t stay up; his bones were contorting. He wasn’t able to walk or talk or recognize anyone. Doctors in Amsterdam, London, New York, Boston, and Istanbul diagnosed differently than Cairo: his heart was fine; this was total brain damage, and it had happened during delivery. Deprived of oxygen, the living cells in the newborn’s brain had all died except for a few, placing him for the next thirty-eight years at the limit between dying and being dead. At a talk, many years later, I heard the philosopher Jalal Toufic say, “To die before dying is to become aware of what one is already: dead while still physically alive, a mortal.”[1]

A mortal is a subject that is subject to death and has the dead alive in him. As a five-year-old, I was like Thomas in Caravaggio’s Incredulity of Saint Thomas painting, but our distrust was different. Unlike the stolid doubter whose index finger pierced Christ’s wound, refusing to believe without direct embodied experience, I prodded my mother’s deepest wound for a theoretical and abstract explanation. I asked her if my brother knew what color was; if he understood what a bad odor smelled like. Does he know what a golden mountain is? Can he put together in his mind the idea of gold and the idea of a mountain? I wanted to hear about cognition, recognition, causes, and consequences. Does he belong to the world of things—inorganic and raw matter—or the world of humans and language? Why do I recognize him while he doesn’t recognize me? And how come he doesn’t recognize you, his own mother? Sometimes my mother would burst into tears, but most often, she gave elusive answers. She never talked about disability or institutional accountability. She often referred me to God. “Go to God,” she would say, “talk to God. If God wills, he will get better.” Prayers, verses, and trojan horses; I prayed and waited and signaled to god that this was the perfect time for an intervention. I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night to check whether he had finally gotten up. All I cared about was to witness it happen before my parents, to be the messenger of good news, the one and only mediator.

Mattresses were changed, blankets shuffled, yet his body lay in the same corner of the living room for thirty-eight years. My mother didn’t admit my brother to a hospital because she didn’t trust hospitals. She turned into an institution when no institution could be a mother. My brother never had an ID card because he never encountered a policeman. His eyes never locked with mine. He had the bedsores of a ninety-year-old at the age of twelve. Unmoving organs and bones heavily pressing on the skin into a tender halo of pinkish white. A bedsore is a mark of a separation, where the body is not one anymore, but fragmented into factions—heart, bones, and kidneys oppressing skin under their weight. If our bones weighed less than our skin, bedsores would not be a thing. 

The absence of mutual recognition left me in a state of one-sidedness that transformed in my teen years into a feeling of innate superiority. “Fucking monster” was all over my diary pages. At home, I refused to sit in the living room, claiming the smell of his drool made me nauseous. At school, his screaming rang in my ears. I had a bone-deep fear at the thought of a friend seeing his postural deformities, pelvic obliquity, and his right foot that had severely turned in and upwards. I hid him from every sight and lied at every occasion: my brother goes to a neighboring school, mid-field on the soccer team, listens to Joy Division, has a half-English girlfriend. I was once dragged by two friends to the soccer field when neighboring schools visited for a tournament; my ashamed self pointed at a guy with short liberty spikes. I felt uncontainable pride that my fake brother was a punk.[2]

I played porno on TV, increasing the volume, and opened his diapers to see if he would get an erection. To lie is to assume a horizontal position, but it is also to deceive. At times, I thought he was pretending, that his entire existence was a lie. At others, I lay in twisted positions next to him on the floor, staring at the same part of the ceiling, daring myself not to move a single muscle. I tirelessly tried to collapse the distance between his experience and mine, to flatten our separate worlds into a deflated one. If only I could get out of myself to know what it would feel like to be in his body. If only I could get to be a living corpse, a ghost-person, to live a life devoid of life, only then could I understand his experience. Without language, being him was the only way of understanding him. Decades later, I would learn that the drive to collapse our differences would repeatedly yield a deadlock, that immediate experience cannot be the only premise of knowledge, that there are ways we can feel and relate to each other without being one another, and that there is a necessity for our differences.

I’m not sure if I failed at talking to god because I failed at talking to my brother, or if I failed at talking to my brother because I failed at talking to god. I mastered the art of counting and cost-benefit analysis. Like capitalists during Covid who triaged the elderly, deeming them unworthy of ventilators, I quantified my mother’s care and could not grasp its imbalances. The number of times she fed him: 3 times a day x 30 days a month = 90 x 12 months a year = 1080 x 20, 25, 30, and now 38 years. Today, she has fed him 41,040 times. I did not understand the way my mother severed equality of value from equality of capabilities. How come I received incomparably less when I was worth much more. What are our economies of worth linked to? For a while, I thought that my mother and I had incompatible orders of worth. I saw worth linked to the social spheres (mutual recognition, school, and love) and she saw it linked to the necessary burden for the continuation of life. Decades later, through the work of Marx, I understood that these orders weren’t so separate.

When I arrived in the US for graduate school, the classroom was dominated by a theory ashamed of human consciousness and agency: Can the mosquito speak? Can the scallop critique? Do pipelines have agency?[3] The aim was to create a pre-critical, pre-modern, pre-individuated world where humans and non-humans are just equal actors in a free-floating monistic blob. A theory that can only be achieved by pre-modern discourses, “a kind of spiritualism without gods,” as Slavoj Žižek would say.[4] Although antihumanism was nothing new (Heidegger, Freud, and Nietzsche long ago told us that humans are primarily driven by irrational, unconscious desires), I found the discussions in the classroom more barren, more bleak. My frustration came out in Skype calls with my mother, who hated nothing in life more than philosophy: “Mom, my peers want to get rid of the human. They want a philosophy of infantile minds, infant from Latin in ‘not’ and fant from fari “speaking,” not speaking and not judging. They claim consciousness belongs to the world of modernity.”[5] My mother, never interested in concealing her lack of interest, responded, “Well, that’s how the West is. But, you can’t get rid of something you’ve never had.”

My mother missed the point. The issue wasn’t about a privileged West giving up the universal categories it had once coerced the world into by spreading its pedagogy. In her incredible book Juridical Humanity, Samera Esmeir re-reads Fanon to tell us that the human has always been present despite colonialism’s claim of its absence. Writing about the introduction of modern law in colonial Egypt, Esmeir claims that the violence of colonial logic is that it posits ‘humanity’ as something that can be confiscated or given. It monopolizes the concept of humanity. It declares to humanize the colonized as if they were never human to begin with.[6] Esmeir wants to show us that this project of “humanization” has erased an understanding of “the human” which was once present in the Islamic mystical tradition, and that had nothing to do with our narrow definition of consciousness and agency. The human was “the organic and inorganic—stars, rocks, and plants,” it was “the stone in the mountain.” Esmeir wants to show us that the violent moment in colonial history was not that the colonized had been excluded from “universal humanity” (like what the anti-colonial poet Aimé Césaire claimed), but that it has, precisely, been included in universal categories. And in such inclusions, other traditions were eradicated. The way out, then, was to eliminate the universal and retreat to the world of tradition.

But which tradition to rescue and which universal to eliminate? Is a unity with the world without any differentiation or understanding of autonomy, dignity, and alienation what we need? Is universal humanity a one-sided concept that has to be purged wholesale? We actually need the universal to be able to speak to one another about the hypocrisy of the framework, to be able to point to the exception. To dwell in the exception is to become aware of what the universal is: a porous conception, never fixed, available for us all to challenge, modify, and alter. We don’t need unity with the world; we need responsibility. Rocks and stars and rivers cannot stop the hoarders, cannot release prisoners, and cannot build institutions to house and care for those who need it. Unlike rocks that can pile up on the shore, or animals that can roam the streets for sustenance, my brother’s existence is founded on my mother’s labor, on her ability for life creation.[7]

Those who create life and those who are unable to create life have a lot more in common than we think. In 1983, J. C. Romeis argued that alienation resulting from disability was undifferentiated from alienation resulting from capitalist exploitation.[8] In a way, severely exploited workers who make the life of others possible and impaired individuals who aren’t able to make their own lives possible shared similar worlds: the former’s value is their extractable ability, and the second’s non-value is  their unextractable disability. This is, perhaps, what it means to make the reproduction of life common to all. An idea I have also encountered in the work of the Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov. Ilyenkov was one of the main figures behind the Zagorsk experiment, a Soviet movement centered on the study of disability in Marxist analysis in the 1960s.[9] The human universal, for Ilyenkov, was not a modern category of pure freedom or a detached form of reasoning. It was the figure of an impaired child. Not the fetishized and authentic infant existing before and above history, proving that modernity is the source of all evil. Rather, the impaired child in Ilyenkov’s work was a way to open the seemingly self-referential nature of what it means to be able in a capitalist world; to open up what life really means.[10] To keep the disabled alive is to become aware of what life already is: an ability to prevent the dead from dying, a continuation of organic life.

Last year, one of my closest friends in Egypt was arbitrarily arrested and held in solitary confinement. Weeks later, he was luckily released as a result of international pressure, unlike thousands of other incarcerated people. When I spoke to him on the phone, he told me how the conversations with prisoners across the hallway had kept him sane, and how he had formed intimate relationships with people he had heard but never seen. There was something striking in the way he narrated his experience during these weeks. He told me how his prior knowledge as a criminal justice researcher—the fact that he knew about the conditions of Egyptian prisons before actually being in one—had, in a way, made his experience less violent. He knew, in a way, before actually knowing.

To know before actually knowing is to become aware of what experience really is: an open conception that cannot be understood outside of mediation, language, and difference. In his History and Freedom lectures, Adorno tells his students the story of his house being searched by the police in Nazi Germany. The experience of such an event, where one might vanish without a trace or run for their life, is much graver than any explanation a newspaper can offer, or any theory can provide. In other words, when we experience something, this immediate knowledge has the capacity for greater meaning for us than pure theory. The problem is that this immediate knowledge, which is important to hold on to, is nothing more than our own immediate experience––it can only be grasped within a larger context, which then manifests itself in these individual facts. Adorno says something crucial here: he could not have experienced the house-search the way that he did had he not linked it in his mind to the changes in the government, the emergency laws made permanent by the Nazis, and the abolition of safety measures he priorly knew about. “If all that had happened,” he states, was that “two relatively harmless officials belonging to the old police force had turned up on my doorstep, and if I had had no knowledge of the complete change in the political system, my experience would have been quite different from what it was.” And, similarly, no one can fully grasp the terrors of an authoritarian regime if he had not experienced that ominous knock at the door to find the police waiting outside.[11]

In other words, we have to resist turning immediate experience into the primary form of politics. In the US, I first encountered the political discourse of staying in your lane, widespread in both organizing and academic context, in which legitimation comes primarily from who you are, from your ‘position,’ so to speak, and not from the force of what you say.[12] One frequently hears sentences such as “no man can know what it’s like to be a woman; no white can know what it’s like to be a black person; no straight person can know what it’s like to be queer.” These insular discourses produce political dead-ends. I lived most of my life not knowing what it was like to be a ghost. The ghost has taught me that the real is more complex than an experience of hearing the doorbell ring, the life lived by the disabled, the female, or the black body. The real is the nature of the system as a whole that makes it possible for policemen to abduct us from our homes; to live in a world where disabled bodies are cloistered; where exploited workers become disabled; where mothers turn into institutions; and where racism and sexism infiltrate our every relation. No one will ever know what it feels like to be anyone else. There will always be a body more discriminated against. “False immediacy,” Adorno states, convinces us to take experience and turn it into an absolute. Our work is to neither negate it in favor of mediation, nor to exaggerate mediation. It is simply to say that we can keep the tension between both.


[1] Toufic, Jalal. “New York book launch: Jalal Toufic, What Was I Thinking? Lecture by the author and conversation with Walid Raad.” e-flux journal, 28 February 2018, https://www.e-flux.com/live/177299/new-york-book-launch-jalal-toufic-what-was-i-thinking-lecture-by-the-author-and-conversation-with-walid-raad/.

[2] According to Hegel, the failure of mutual recognition results in one-sidedness, and one-sidedness is both a state of greatness and guilt. This is what defines tragedy for him. Tragedy arises when the conflict between two positions, each of which is justified, yet each of which is at fault to the extent that it fails to recognize the validity of the other. As Mark W. Roche explains it, “For Hegel tragedy is the conflict of two substantive positions, each of which is justified, yet each of which is wrong to the extent that it fails either to recognize the validity of the other position or to grant it its moment of truth; the conflict can be resolved only with the fall of the hero.” How to understand other forms of one-sidedness that are not necessarily premised in agential relations? How to think of one-sidedness when there is no hero involved? Mark W. Roche. “Introduction to Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy.” PhaenEx, vol. 1.2, 2006, pp. 11–20.

[3] The reference is to Timothy Mitchell, Michel Callon, and Andrew Barry respectively.

[4] Žižek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectic Materialism. Verso, 2015, p. 9.

[5] Adorno gives a good explanation of why such thinking (ontological or Heideggerian) reaches a deadlock in the section “The Child’s Question” in Negative Dialectics, p. 110. He explains how the return to the “childhood of the species” ends up being in a state before and above time. The naivete of such thinking is in fact un-naive. For a discussion on how new materialism employs this child argument see Benjamin Boysen, “The Embarrassment of Being Human: A Critique of New Materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology,” Orbis Litterarum, vol. 73, no. 3, 2018, pp. 225–42. Wiley Online Library, https://doi.org/10.1111/oli.12174.

[6] This idea that takes up the concept of “humanity” as a desirable end, not a means to an end, comes from the logic of enlightenment, according to Esmeir, as best articulated in Immanuel Kant’s famous “humanity is an end in itself.” The problem for Esmeir is that such a conception of humanity exists between a dualism (of end in itself/means) which forecloses a third scenario where the human is neither a means to an end, nor an end in itself, but a means “to no end.” “A pure means,” as she states, “humanity as a means in itself.” See Samera Esmeir. Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History. Stanford University Press, 2012, p. 75.

[7] For an excellent discussion of what Marx called in the 1844 manuscripts the “inorganic body” of the human see Judith Butler. “The Inorganic Body in the Early Marx: A Limit-concept of Anthropocentrism.” Radical Philosophy, vol. 2, no. 6, 2019.

[8] Industrial capitalism produces disability on two fronts. First, through the  perpetual accumulation  of wealth, the capitalist lengthens the working day and intensifies the exploitation of the mind and body of the worker. As Karl Marx puts it, page after page, in describing the potters class as “generations of stunted, short-lived and rapidly replaced human beings,” they are “ill-shaped, and frequently ill-formed in the chest; they become prematurely old, and are certainly short-lived…”These ill-formed generations are unable to sustain a standard worker body and have to withdraw from work. In this withdrawal, they become labor-disabled. On the other hand, those unable to labor are excluded and erased. “The primary oppression of disabled persons,” writes Marta Russell, “is their exclusion from exploitation as wage laborers.” See Marta Russell. “Disablement, Oppression and Political Economy.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2001, p. 88 and J.C. Romeis. “Alienation as a Consequence of Disability: Contradictory Evidence and Its Interpretations.” Sociology of Health & Illness, no. 5, 1983, pp. 25–41.

[9] Ilyenkov saw in the Zagorsk School—a Soviet boarding school for deaf-blind children—a chance for the figure of the impaired child to be recognized as a universal being. In an unconventional reading of Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx, he argued for a theory of the thinking body, a body that is aware of other bodies in space, as a fundamental feature of consciousness.

[10] Karl Marx uses both labor-power and labor-ability (Arbeitskraft or Arbeitsvermögen) interchangeably, but English translations often only use labor-power.

[11] Adorno, Theodor. Lectures on History and Freedom. Polity Press, 2008, p. 20.

[12] Jay, Martin. “Experience without a Subject: Walter Benjamin and the Novel.” Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time. University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, pp. 47-61.

Transcendent Human / Ordinary Human

Artwork: Aline Deschamps, "A party at Ramlet El Baida" extract of the series "I am not your animal", Photograph. 2021

Early in the morning, the last day before I left Beirut, the dollar was still at 1500LL. I walked toward the Corniche in the dark before dawn, waiting to take a taxi (service) to the airport. In Farsi, we call the sky before sunrise “Wolf and Sheep” (گرگ و میش). The term was probably coined by shepherds when it was difficult for them to distinguish wolves from herds at dusk. With the same inability to distinguish things in my mind, I walked down the quiet streets towards the sea.

Saying farewell to Beirut has always been a romantic affair, and Beirut generously allowed me to exaggerate those farewells. To say goodbye to Beirut, I felt I must think about its streets and neighborhoods one by one, and conjure the memories of their density. The density of houses and the width of streets, the density of tangled electric wires, cars, and balconies, the density of bodies on the Corniche. I thought of Hamra, where I had walked the most in Beirut, as a combination of the city’s many densities; its utter oblivion of a more recent history and yet its preservation of a distant past that had been completely erased elsewhere in the city.

But on my way to the Corniche that morning, the liveliest density that I carried with me was from the night before. A long row of Dabke dancers under the red flares of Riyadh el-Solh. The revolutionaries were moving slowly back and forth, like the waves of the sea, in line with Sheikh Imam’s songs. I was with them, I danced with them.

The sea was slowly appearing between the buildings at the foot of the street. The morning of the tenth day of the Lebanese revolution, daylight seemed to rise from the bottom of the sea.How do revolutionaries start the tenth day of a revolution? Who were the revolutionaries in Beirut that morning? In that unknown mass that had magnetically absorbed the whole city, what kind of humans were being formed?

Illustrations from Mansuri’s book “Anatomy of the human body” (Tashrih-i Badan-i Insan), Mansur ibn Ilyas, 1709. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine.

During the first months of the pandemic, amidst the endless confusions of trying to understand the relationship between the individual and the collective, together with all the paradoxical scientific statements appearing in the news, I returned to a series of images from the dissection book of Mansouri. The book was written and illustrated almost seven hundred years ago in a bid to describe the human body. In Mansouri’s illustrations, the human body had particular proportions; open eyes; short arms and legs bent on both sides, spread out like a map to show us a secret hidden within the human body. The dimensional drawings depicted miniature veins, nerves, and bones, alongside a special style of writing in annotation. Looking through these images, it felt as if this was the first time a human being had sought to enter into its own body, as if exploring the secrets of an inner cave.

During the period of Mansuri’s illustrations, the tradition of writing about the wonders of creation (عجائب المخلوقات) flourished. In this tradition, images operate precisely as the outer boundary of humankind, and any boundary between man and animal disappears. These texts are full of imagining creatures that never existed, attributed to unknown geographies. In their depiction of these wondrous animals, traces of being human can still be found: the eyes of animals are drawn as if belonging to a human face, and intermediate beings are formed—half-human, half-animal. 

The virus, we were told, had come from the Wuhan Livestock Market. It was as if we had returned to the blurred frontiers of Mansouri’s images, and animals and other creatures were no longer in the background, insignificant to the events of human life. Suddenly, they had become the main actors in this story. At the same time, there was a heated debate about how the virus could be transmitted from person to person. Humans had become dangerous to other humans. A strange feeling was telling me that we were being torn to pieces while the borders were closing one by one. The same virus penetrated all existing inequality gaps, amplifying them to new levels of injustice. We had to rethink the basics—to return to equality. To the most vulnerable people. How? With what horizons? With which comrades? Far from any collectivity, reduced to fear and isolation, I wondered what human was left in the wake of this pandemic.

“The City We Imagine” performance, Giulia Crispiani and Golrokh Nafisi, Live Works Summit, Centrale Fies – Italy, 2021. Photo credit: Roberta Segata.

***

In 2019, as I bid farewell to Beirut in the midst of an ongoing uprising some named a “revolution”, I thought back to 1979. For us, children of Iran’s 1979 Revolution who were born immediately after victory was claimed, the figure of the Human (انسان) was at the center of our revolutionary upbringing. In both official education and my family education (which was often opposed to the curriculum imposed by the state), Insan (انسان) was supposed to save us. The Revolutionary Man, Elevated Man, Eminent Man, Committed Man, Exalted Man.The path to an equal monotheistic society, a free society, a society independent of colonialism and imperialism, all were supposed to be embodied by this Insan.

The Exalted Man came in two forms: either the spiritual and transcendent man, who must prove his humanity in self-sacrifice for revolution and religion, or the secular and committed man, who must persevere under duress and keep alive the revolutionary ideals. But across all its ideological manifestations, the figure of this Exalted Human (انسان والا / تعالى الإنسان) remained at the center; He who could advance to the position of the leader of the revolution, a man who resists and sacrifices his life for the cause.

In the first decade after the revolution, the collective praise of the Exalted Man, the leader who never breaks, gradually became a tool of repression. In order to establish a new order, this man had to be broken by the new state, by torture, confession, execution, and fear. At the same time, the numbers of young people who were dying in the Iran-Iraq War inflated the word Martyr throughout the city. Spilling blood became both an honor and a tool for human possession. The Elevated Man, the guardian of the most beautiful ideals of humanity, was now defined only by the things for which he could die. The concept of the Transcendent Human that had been at the center of the 1979 Revolution became too heavy to bear.

***

Growing up in Tehran in the decades after 1979, it was as if The Transcendent Human gradually decided to prove his individuality. An individuality independent of the mass; indifferent, one-sided, and sometimes even opposed to unity. This attempt to break away from the mass became the main focus of a new kind of community: groups of young people who emphasized their individual identities. It was as if a form of a collective will was being formed to recognize the person who had been separated from the mass. Meanwhile, the experience of the broken revolutionary human had prompted us to make an unwritten agreement amongst ourselves that there should be nothing to break. Simply put: we no longer needed a leader. In the years leading up to 2009, there was an unspoken law in every political gathering, regardless of the ideas that were propagated, that we must recognize individuality. A will to be recognized as a human being who was not going to die for his/her idea, but who wanted to live for it.

But in June 2009, we found ourselves again in one big body after all. A formidable and all-encompassing greatness that, in a march from Revolution Square to Freedom Square on the afternoon of June 15, 2009, redefined our relationship with the collective, with ordinary people and with ourselves. A relationship with an infinite beauty that one could undoubtedly die for.

In the years that followed, and in the painful experience of internal splits and state suppression that once again reduced us to an isolated group of people, the classic post-uprising question came to our generation too: How is it possible to be loyal to the great body that we had seen? Where was the border between the individuality that we wanted to build, and the opportunistic culture of profit and loss that now swallowed our cities? Semi-individuals, rejecting leaders, threatened by the police, committed to that great body that was torn to pieces in front of our eyes—what kind of human could we become? And what vision of humanity was left for our poetry, our faith?

For me, the pure and unrepeatable experience of equality that I witnessed inside of the 2009 movement was the only answer that remained. Was it not on this horizon that stretched from the home to the street that our fear dissipated? The temporary equality of ordinary people in the squares, with their thousands of creative techniques of resistance in daily life, remained in my body’s memory like an ever-desirable impossible. My search for the texture of that density in the Arab squares over the last ten years was a continuation of this desire and its memory.

***

By the time I reached the Corniche, the sky was almost bright. I felt I had to say goodbye to the sea. I had to confess to it that Beirut, with all its wonders and anxieties over the past two years, had saved me from many dilemmas. She even made life in Tehran bearable. I shared my fears with Beirut, and she understood me. A small town that behaved like the big cities. She rejected things about the past but also clung to the past with a strange obsession. From where I was standing, only a few distasteful towers, blinding the city to the sea, accompanied me in staring at the sea with their dark, empty windows.

The sea that day was really ordinary. A few steps away from the balustrade on which I was leaning, a fisherman in a plastic chair leaned toward the sea. The chair was clearly small for his body. The fisherman was lying on his side, and small cracks in the back of the chair which were sewn together with wires testified to the sudden breaking of the chair in the near future. But It seemed that even if the chair disappeared, that same body with the same curvature to the right, and the eyes staring to the end of the sea, would still be there. The weight of that stable body made me pause. While I had been thinking of the movement between transcendent and ordinary humans as the subject of history/revolution, the fisherman sat down casually, somehow managing to keep his body stable amidst a fragile situation.

It crossed my mind: in all these revolutions, there were sensitive techniques, creative tactics and intelligent maneuvers based on daily life that kept us going. The fisherman, like an eternal presence on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, had blurred all these impossible boundaries into one side of a weak plastic chair. In that eternal lull, I imagined all the same human bodies on the seashore as far as Haifa, Sour, Gaza, Trablos, and how their gaze connected the distant horizons of the Mediterranean cities above its bloody borders. The sun of the tenth morning of the revolution was slowly shining on the steady hands of the fisherman. By now, the early rising revolutionaries must have been on their way to the bridge where they had set up a roadblock over the last ten days.

When I got into the taxi, I looked back to make sure that the fisherman was still there, at the corner of the Corniche. His place by the sea had a heavy, concentrated intensity, one that showed me how to keep sitting on a broken chair. To restore my broken faith, I memorized this image, and with it, the belief that it was still possible to belong to a large group of ordinary people who have built thousands of creative ways to survive; that it was still possible to stay, to resist, to fall in love in the middle of the square, to write a love letter from prison, and to transcend every interrogation. That no matter how many times we are broken, we can still believe in a transcendent human who cries in her solitary confinement at nights, and in an ordinary human whose gaze out onto the sea pushes past all its borders. In order to bid farewell to our beloved cities, it is this Human we must remember.

Golrokh Nafisi
22.Feb.2022

Nevertheless,
Oh, wandering heart,
Do not forget that we
— you and I

We have observed the rules of love,

Do not forget
that we
— you and I —

We have observed the rules of Insan

Regardless of whether 
[he is] God’s masterpiece,
or not


Ahmad Shamlou
(From Three Hymns for the Sun, 1966)
Translated by  Golrokh Nafisi, with help from Kamran Rastegar and Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi

Autobiography of a Flame

Artwork: Rheim Alkadhi, 2022

When I arrived to the so-called upper epochs, it’s not as if I knew where I was going. I’d been underground for a while—years likely passed before I’d surfaced. Now I was scaling the hinterlands from their disproportion. The way they’d been trampled and debased, made worthless and dead—enough to make you grind your teeth flat. That’s why I looked at everything so close, enlarging each aspect in my mind, making sure to sear every detail hard onto my inner eye. ‘To the degree that nothing was left’—the words they use to describe the aftermath. But it’s not that meaning was stripped from everything; meaning had changed. I was here to deliver myself out from the narrative.

Start off by forgetting names. I’ll lose my own name, for what it’s worth. As to the soil particles packed in sliding shifts: that’s the terrain I assume is firm enough to support my footing. Moist on the soles. But try rolling it around between thumb and forefinger: what’s left isn’t really moisture. It’s an oily residue, a viscous sludge; something like combustible mire, or else whatever recently grew a flame. I try making a cross-section with a long strip of metal I find by the wayside; cut through till it hits a clay bed one or two hand-lengths deep. Calls to mind a craze from times before: digital hawking of exotic edible mud—marsh clay in particular: ‘slightly sweet, yet bitter, with hints of petrol’.  

Geography gave us names. But surfacing is only possible if you’ve forgotten the names—this could be anywhere, and that’s the point. When I try and spit them out, I hardly muster syllables: buh, ben, bah, bei, ber, buf…just can’t get past primordial utterances. Because time, you know—so temporary when it was ‘on’—is since inert. Then, later, when geography loosened off of the planet—it was glorious, but short-lived. I mean, we could fly: is that something or what! We had to get devices, sure—in most cases, secondhand worked like a charm—but for an unbelievable minute, we—all of us—rejected the lines they gave us, rejected the lines they drew around us.

Rheim AlKadhi, 2022

Dry reed splinters strew the surface of this little island. I’d gather them into a heap and cushion my repose if it weren’t for flames popping up here and there unexpected. Just like those long disaster days, never felt easy bedding down for sleep; had to be ready to pick up and run—I mean, you get used to that. But these piddle flames don’t bother me; not compared to back then. You’d transit sleepless over scrap oil fields, hold nothing back—subconscious junk would just flood out. Some called it madness: dreams replaced by impulses. Militaries itched for that ‘paradise’: that our uprisings would unleash behaviors they could destroy or imprison; no, we were just evolving our collective ethic.

Not all flames burn the same; each has its own special temperament. The flames around me—including the flickers snuffed by slack footing—they spark up at the tiniest vibration sent through the ground. Friction of shifting particles will ignite spontaneously, like flint. I was spooked when I noticed the flames following or leaping ahead of me—to the rhythm of my steps. Then, I played along. I’d jump, and three tall flames would appear. I’d step back: they’d vanish, but others would crop up behind me. Wasn’t long before I took a liking to them; more I got to know their character. Might’ve been loneliness for my part, but there’s an undeniable kinship between all our subsurface wounds.

I’d resist naming them, of course—even if by now I’m accustomed to the disposition of each. I’d go stock-still, eyes fixed on switching spectrums of constancy and transience. I’d watch, try and adapt when one or other’d take over or get unwieldy. At water’s edge, one flame only smolders; I feed it some dry reed kindling and flotsam. It becomes my cooking fire and I set a scrap metal retainer at its rim. When I harvest the young shoots growing in the shallows, I move too quick and frighten some warblers—they scatter upward into the ethers. Back at the fire, I grill the reed stems; I peel off the outer layers to get the soft insides. I wolf them; and raw leaves I chew for hydration.

The flames are all consuming—staying with them makes me feel like a flame myself. I don’t manage to recline, possessed by the thought that flames don’t burn horizontally. To try and make sense of this, I build a raft from reed stalks tied together by their fibers. So that it doesn’t catch fire, I lay it down on the soggiest embankment, not far from the warblers’ patch. I stretch out on top of it and try to doze, watching the earth spit flames that flit and quiver, grow and recede. The warm air doesn’t move; haze blurs the sun. Warblers dart around singing, “Chrrr Irrrrr you arrive Chch Rrrrt displace us from our fragile habitat Wchrrrr we barely survived the last five catastrophes Trrrr Rrrrt Trrr Rrrrrr.”

Rheim Alkadhi, 2022

Before long I am upright again, walking. I measure the span between opposite banks to be about fifteen hundred steps. At its narrowest jut, this tiny continent is just ten steps wide. I trip over flames, especially the vaporous, ribbony ones; my thick-skinned heels are fine, but my fallen arches are scorched again. Leg hairs are singed and the long hem of my dress shows signs of having caught fire. I look for a way out, but haven’t yet located the narrative reprieve. I see revolution in each fiery blossom rising from the dirt: mudden mouths speaking an elemental language—flaming tongues rehearsing a rebellion against the aggressors that turned us all inside-out.

Underground, we’d chosen our hormones at will. Treatment got so fine-tuned that you could adjust your gender day by day, if that’s your thing. I’d always opted for androgen blockers; part of my belief system—that what brought us to this degree of ruin are substances flooding the drive for competition, penetration, weapons, war, profit, death… you get my drift. My cycle was regular, but shedding blood went obsolete ages ago. Here, as I emptied my bladder into a hole dug from the mud, I see a few drops of blood and feel a sharp pain in my abdomen. All those petrochemicals turned this water mostly untouchable, certainly undrinkable. Nothing would survive here very long.

Rheim Alkadhi, 2022

By now I skirt flames pretty well. I head to the reed cluster where the warblers nest, and pull myself down onto the raft. I lie on it sideways—this time, facing the water. I stare through the reeds at the long-defunct petrol fields pockmarked by giant leaning stacks that sputter ghost-flares. Thick chemical gel oozes and bubbles up from the ground. How our labor was devalued—multinationals never’d hire locals—to kill the very land they inhabited? No way. My stomach hurt like hell now. I bear down as if detaching my torso from my lower body: pain pushes through me like a drawn-out electrical spasm. With that feverish jolt, a baby slips out from between my legs, onto the raft.

Long intervals just staring, cupping my hands around a flame that somehow grew inside me. But listen: if every flame is an uprising, this one would also grow. I kiss rebellion on the lips before throwing her into the sky, where she joins the ranks of winged warblers. Then, I look for the spot where I’d first surfaced. I find it, and put my mouth to the breach, screaming as loud as I can: to waken the rage, rattle unrest from the jinx of underground captivity. One or two flames just like me surface. And, even if we’re few, we begin stirring our storm. Ten more wake up, surface; then fifty, a hundred. We begin marching across continents, fueled a bit more by every enjoining flame.

We move together in synchronized strides toward the sealed enclosure: that last parcel of habitable earth annexed by whoever has exploited our pain and invisibility—the profiteers of war and devastation. Here, there is no gate or entrance, no way in along the endless walled perimeter. No reason, mind you, for the privileged to set foot onto fields they made dead grossing their gains. Several of us draw back for running leaps. Then, all our multitudes fuse, producing a collective force of atmospheric pressure that only escalates, culminating in an eruption of such brutal strength and speed that our climatic vibration sends the cosmos ringing into several subdivisions of infinity.

The violence of our weather pulverizes every vestige of separation into mounds of dust. No time lost before entering the arena: this time as wildfire proceeding across the terrain from which we’d been so long excluded; burning through fortified zones with neither mercy nor selfish desire for vast accumulations of capital, stopping only for rivers and aquifers—humbly deferring to the absolute sacredness of water—otherwise consuming as if to try and mirror the inimitable blaze of the sun. Later, as we subside, reclining in the form of live glowing embers, we receive the new era: a hallowed age after the planet is bathed in fire, purged of its wickedness.

Ghost (ش.ب.ح)

Notes Towards an Alliance with the Revenant

Photo by Setareh Shahbazi.

To write is to work for the dead, to create the conditions needed for the ghost to return. In order to do so, the writer must let go of the desire to tell a story. The dead don’t tell stories. They return to disrupt narratives that insist on beginnings, middles, and ends. The dead move in circles. They keep returning to a known place, moment, or position. To write for the ghost is to follow traces, to revisit a past event that resists being assimilated in an established continuum. The ghost requires digressive and meandering prose in which contending temporalities coalesce in a single moment of time. 

The ghost isn’t a literary trope or poetic metaphor for our cruelest, most repressed monsters. While ghost stories abound—gothic narratives, haunted houses, untended graveyards, angry claims for proper burials, unrequited and troubled souls returning to claim their dues, etc.—the ghost isn’t a matter of belief or a product of our imagination. It disinvites deliberations on the reality of its existence and ridicules rituals of evacuation geared at its disappearance. The ghost is disappearance, the unknown sensorially activated. As such, it challenges our ability to put phenomena into words and tasks us with creating vocabularies in which the material world is always the product of immaterial forces. 

I would talk about my own ghosts but there are no such things. Ghosts come in droves; they are essentially shared. They return to revoke definitions, to demand the entire reformulation of the conditions upon which categories such as “life” and “death,” “organic” “inorganic”, “animate” and “inanimate” are established. They return to protest death, an industry that profits those who establish who is worthy of life and who, while living, is already deemed dead. The ghost returns to rescind the terms of these extractive arrangements. 

To work for the dead is work. The ghosts are “needy.”[1] They nag, like children, for attention. They demand that the invisible be seen. They insist that the invisible not be reduced to visibility. They find representation intolerable. Their grievances can’t be addressed or subsumed under individual claims. In working for the dead, the writer strives to generate a language divested of selfhood or possession, sentences that decenter individual agency (the ghosts never speak in the first person).   

I write about the ghost without knowing what it is. I quote propositions such as “the ghosts are needy” but I don’t know this for a fact. The ghost inhabits an ambivalent syntax at odds with assertions such as the “the ghost is” or “the ghost is not.” To define the ghost is to fail to capture the nature of its non-existence. To write about the ghost is to fail to write about the ghost. To work for the dead is to protest the conditions that separate us from them. The living can’t live without the dead and the dead can’t die if they are forgotten. As such, to write about the ghost is to take on the labor of interdependence:  “Thus living and dead were interdependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egotism has broken this interdependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as eliminated.”[2]  As such, to write about the ghost consists in interrogating the architecture of our separations, to produce language that can speak to our spiritual interdependence without denying our modernity.  

To write with the ghost in times of a global pandemic, mass death, unprecedented economic depression, and state of perpetual loss is paradoxically more difficult than to write about the ghost in a time of seeming normality. Those considered alive are too consumed with survival, making ends meet, managing illness, wrestling with the disintegration of social life, burying loved ones (whenever possible), finding pockets of light and spaces to breathe in. In a state of permanent crisis, the interdependence between life and death is compromised. Focused on survival, the living divests itself of the dead—a parasitic presence sapping their dwindling energetic capital. They forget that they are bound to a common condition, that they share the circumstances of their demise. We must seek unity with the ghost “since we, like them, are victims of the same conditions and of the same disappointed hope.”[3]

The ghosts pile up generationally, forming an amorphous mass of atomized souls. Something (unresolved grievances) propels them to return, each generation clinging on to their historical wounds. Institutional memory ambushes the ghost, placating their grievances through representation. To tend to their wound is to sustain the labor of our interconnected fates. Only when these wounds are recognized as our own will the ghost be free from having to return.

What would unity with the ghost look like? What kinds of alliances can be forged with other states of being and non-being? How to imagine an alliance in which the dead and the living organize themselves in vengeful, cross-realm coalitions that resist the ruthless, decadent neo-liberal order responsible for killing the death we all deserve and the life we ought to live?  

To work for the dead is a labor of loss, not an obligation. The ghost doesn’t give back; it knows that what we owe each other can’t be quantified. To work with the ghost, you must be willing to give up everything. To give when “giving is not an investment.”[4]

A ghost language shifts from singular to plural and back again. 

To work for the dead is to disentangle profit from death, sabotage the expectation of return on investment. The ghost is an inheritance devoid of wealth, a heritage against filiation (we inherit what isn’t ours). The ghost returns to abolish returns. Returns are defined as: “money, or a sum of money, made by the exercise of a skill or occupation or from investment or trade; gain, profit, or income in relation to the means by which it is produced.”[5] The ghost defies definitions; it refuses to give back what is expected, due, or fair. The ghost isn’t fair or just, an afterlife redeemer or a voice for divine justice. The ghost is erratic, volatile, hysterical. It stands against calculations, speculations, expectations of what we think we owe, are owed, or expect to receive. The revenant returns without return. It gives (back) what we never hoped to have in the first place.

The writers in this issue all work with and for the dead. They engage, without return, in the labor of grief. They find forms (literary, poetic, critical, visual) suited to their musings on the revenant. As they write, they become less of what they were, letting parts of themselves break away like an ice sheet calving from a softening glacier. Salma Shamel, Haytham al Wardani, Lama Khatib, Suneela Mubayi, Christian Nyampeta, Asiya Wadud, and Maxime Hourani engage various dimensions of the ghost: the djinn; the afterlife of black lives; the microcellular, prophetic violence; and the undead. I do not know what will come of the contributions since, as I write this, they remain to be written. I believe this issue, however, to be a site for the formation of a (non-representational, vengeful, caring) poetics inclusive of both the living and the dead, a poetic that promises, in its failure, the possibility of a language commensurate with our losses. 


[1] Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 2004.

[2] Berger, John. “Twelve Theses on the Economy of the Dead.” The Silver Bird, 2015. cleansilver2.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/twelve-theses-on-the-economy-of-the-dead-john-berger.

[3] Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. by John Cumming. Verso, 2016.

[4] Baldwin, James. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Ed. By Randall Kenan. Vintage, 2011.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary: The Definitive Record of the English Language (online). www.oed.com.

Human (ب.ش.ر)

In Defense of Humanity

Photo by Nour Safieddine (Facebook), 2018.

Are we not human, too?” (منّا إنسان كمان؟)

In conversations with migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, I heard this sentence so repeatedly that I came to understand it as the refrain at the heart of the kafala system, rhetorically posing the question of foreign humanity inside Lebanese syntax. The brutal simplicity of these three words offers an intervention, one that wrenches the category of the human subject from the language of migrant workers’ subjugation in order to articulate a different social grammar. Insan: from the root a-n-s; to be intimate, friendly, companionable; the opposite of beastliness. In fact, this is not a question but an accusation, and perhaps we might hear in the force of its rhyming syllables an opening for our discourse.

Naming the human is increasingly recognized as an act, also, of exclusion. Amidst pollution, resource shortages, and mutating viruses, to mention only a few, many accurately insist that we cannot account for human experience without addressing the non-human. In these paired terms, we gesture to the entanglements of self and other but also to a concept, the non-human, that has come to stand for a larger analytic challenge to dominant modes of interpreting and imagining the political. Within Anthropology (the discipline where I am located), the non-human points to what is loosely referred to as the “ontological turn”, a pivot in prevailing disciplinary thought that has gained prominence over the last two decades. 

The ontological turn challenges the limits of a human-centered science—the very sign under which Anthropologists inherit our project of knowledge (Anthropology, from the Greek anthrōpos, or “human being”, distinctly evident in the Arabic ‘ulum al-insaniyye)—to adequately respond to a global ecological crisis brought on by the ravages of human-centric extraction, profit, and fantasy. It asks us to contend with other forms of relationality, ones in which the nature/culture divide is not presumed; in which the subjects of history are not only human beings, and non-human entities are active participants in sociocultural life; in which diversity is not an adequate framework to understand difference; and in which ethics is intertwined with environments. These challenges have been grounded in the concrete experiences of anthropological encounters, particularly with Indigenous communities whose lifeworlds have long resisted capture by modern discursive and institutional forms. But critiques have also been leveled in the same names, most forcefully those drawing attention to Indigenous scholarship that precedes and exceeds the current popular citations, and to the gap between marshaling Indigenous cosmologies for intellectual projects while remaining silent on the ongoing realities of settler colonialism. Here, however, the words that we begin from do not foreground a non-post-, or more-than-human cosmology. In the city of Beirut, between 2014—2016, again and again, I heard African and Asian women declare: Are we not human too?

Arabic has two common terms for human; insan (pl. nas) and bashar. The latter, bashar, may be used both in the individual sense of human being or as a collective noun, such that it signifies a plurality while grammatically singular. In fact, the root b-sh-r has a curious and delightful usage in modern Arabic, with one set of dictionary words coalescing around joy, and another around the body. From b-sh-r we derive ways to speak of rejoicing, being delighted, welcoming, bringing good news; for the good news itself, and from this, for prophecy, for good omens; for forecasting and prognostics, a science of prediction. And from b-sh-r we speak also of the skin, of peeling and scraping, of skin color and complexion; of touching and having sex, of being in direct contact with. From both usages, the root gives us terms for directness and immediacy, as when the evening news comes to us live. And so, there are two stories to be told here: one, of the double sense of b-sh-r, and the other, of the double sense of human, as both bashar and insan. 

Suffice it to say that classical dictionaries offer various theories for the first, ranging from those that suggest it is the human capacity to be happy that differentiates them from animals, hence the overlap of joy and the epidermis; to those that point to the change in one’s complexion upon receiving good news; to those that locate its origins in Adam, to whom, in the originary act of human creation, was given both good tidings and good skin. Meanwhile, for the Andalusian philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi, Adam was both first and archetypal human (abu al-bashar), referring to his biological and material form as molded of clay, while also exemplifying the task of being fully spiritually and socially human (insan), in the sense of bearing the privilege of trust from God, as carrier of divine breath, burdened with free will. Bound by more secular commitments, here we are concerned with the human in its skin, in labor and color, pain and thirst, exhaustion and monstrosity, and so it is b-sh-r that grounds these considerations. But the privilege of language (as Marxist philosophers have long reminded us) is that meaning is made in life and not in dictionaries. Hence we play with multiple traces of the word, from human complexion to human community, from human being to beings other than human, and from philosophical humanism to lived dehumanization.

The texts in this section of The Derivative’s third issue began with a speculative provocation: “What would it look like, to you, for us to meet in a Beirut that allowed us to encounter each other as humans?” The use of the human was not to idealize the universalizing category of “human being” but rather to consider it a collective that retained space for freedom, while refusing to begin from the dominant codes that currently organize the hierarchies of our humanness — last name, citizenship status, sect, work, skin color. How might a return to the human in its fullest sense offer us a prompt to think about real togetherness in the space of the city, a city that has given something to each of us? Alongside the urgency of accounting for ecological devastation, might there still be some recognition we can find in a shared plural? For all that has been silenced in the project of Modern Man, I still hear the voices of the women whose names I remember, in fury, in sorrow, in rumination, and in certitude. They appealed to an abstraction that somehow retained its truth, even as its members violated any possible norms of decent behavior. That of our humanity. 

Fire (ح.ر.ق)

The Book of Dreams

Photo by Rijin Sahakian

In the summer of 2020, pandemic shutdowns and far-reaching fires in California kept residents like myself inside for weeks. A muddied orange glow shifted the skies for days on end and I, with the many others, mourned the loss of life and land, stunned by the enormity and physical transformation the flames wrought. A renowned writer and climate change activist based in San Francisco shared on social media a story about the fires and Baghdad. I thought for a moment that the connection between the extreme environmental costs of waging war on bodies and earth, and its implications for sites beyond Iraq’s borders, had been made. But the story was not about Iraq’s burning oil fields, the soaring emissions of heavy military machinery, the razing of trees and foliage, or the less readily understood generational complications of survival.

The story was a recounting of a man living in the U.S. who felt the need to go outside despite the hazardous air. He had felt the need to breathe it in, just as in the days of the Mongol invasion of Iraq when the great library of Baghdad was burned. It is said that the ink from the books turned the river black and residents drank its waters in order to retain some of the knowledge. But when will we drink from the waters, or breathe the air, of all that has burned in our far more recent wars in Iraq? When will we retain any of the volumes of knowledge falling heavier than the ash from our wildfires out of our global wars?

Winter suspended the fires in California and brought a visit from my father’s only sister. She had left Iraq bitterly in 2007 after living through the Iran-Iraq war in the border city of Basra, arranging flowers in emptied missile shells to decorate her living room and proudly serving wine she’d fashioned from figs. One morning she mentioned that my grandfather had kept a book of dreams. A book of interpretation and his own recordings in Armenian script, which he carried with him from Yozgat. At the age of thirteen, he came home to find his family members murdered. Leaving Turkey by foot, he would first arrive in Beirut and soon after make residence in Baghdad. A camp had been set up for surviving Armenians and Assyrians. He would marry, have children, but return to Beirut often for treatment at a hospital, also set up for survivors. He would pass fifteen years before my birth at that same hospital, and it was in its gardens that one of two photographs I have of him was taken. My aunt showed it to me the day she told me of the book, the drives they once took from Baghdad to Beirut to visit him, the letters he used to write. I saw his eyes for the first time and a kind of awe made its place in me—his hard face, soft quilted jacket. During the short time I lived in Beirut, I made an attempt to find that hospital. I was told he was buried in an adjacent cemetery. I asked the friend who invited me to write this piece to help me navigate the site. The trip was hollow. I had been given the name of the wrong hospital, I would later learn.

Maybe one day I will go to the right place. Maybe he will be there, or maybe it will be as futile as the trip I had dressed up for, a white dress stuck to me in the humid heat of a congested Beirut summer, a clothing choice as foolish as the excursion. What did I think would happen? Would I hold an impromptu funeral for a man I’d never known? Would my friend have pointed out his name, Sahak, in a language I didn’t understand and a family history his own children were predetermined to never piece together? 

A hundred years after Sahak fled Yozgat, his grandson, my cousin, along with other men, would light a fire in a Turkish prison where migrants were held. Unlike Sahak, my cousin wasn’t alone, he’d fled Baghdad with his wife and young daughters Marya and Natalia, carrying the smallest  on his shoulders in a reverse journey to Yozgat from Baghdad.

In the early years of the 21st century brutalization of Iraq, they too were on foot through Turkey, attempting to escape the state’s officers. Sleeping behind rocks and tumbling over them, meeting others along the way; they were hunted, and all eventually captured, the women separated from the men. Put into jails they called camps, the men waited fourteen days then set the place alight. Natalia, barely a teenager at the time, moved fast to meet her father, all of them escaping in the flames.

Natalia is now a young woman, she recounts the experience as a childhood memory. She’s happy, she says. She likes Toronto; she’s made close friends. I love her and want to hug her, to close in all the years. I wonder if she stumbled over the same rocks Sahak had. I wonder what he wrote in that book of dreams, if his interpretations lined up with the descriptions inside.

I wonder what the book holds as it now lays in Beirut, in the apartment of another of his granddaughters, another of my cousins, waiting with another family. It is their fourth year of waiting since leaving Baghdad, not to seek treatment in Beirut as he had, but for papers that may or may not arrive.

Did he know what would come? Did he see it? Did the visions kill him in that hospital? Or was it more simple. A body, wrought by all it had witnessed, and the disease survival brought with it, letting go. I have only seen one other photo of him, taken from a distance. On a low hill, an outline of his figure sits on his heels, an animal nearby. Would it have hurt him to see what became of his children and their children? Or would he have felt relieved, knowing they had left? Did he love that city the way his children would? Two sons dying in the city they refused to leave. Did his dreams ever reveal that Baghdad would be rocked, again and again, by fire? In the layers of man-made destruction, the equivalence to years of uninterrupted volcanic eruption.

The hills didn’t hold my feet at thirteen. Well before Natalia was born, I had long been at my destination, in America. In the winter of ‘91, wrapped in the warmth of blankets and approved documents, I dreamt of streaming lights in a green sky. I told my best friend the next day, and a few days later the Gulf War began; on the screen those same lights, that same green sky. My friend ran to me at school, telling me excitedly that I must be psychic. I spent the next month watching the green lights again and again, narrated with maps on the news and merchandise sales of yellow ribbons and toilet paper rolls stamped with Saddam’s face. I knew they thought we all looked like him, my father deflected the stares. A few years after the first war’s end, I would go with my mother to Baghdad. Laying in the dark before sleep came, sharing a room with other cousins, all grandchildren of Sahak, they whispered to me of the nights that shook their homes, the sky exploding. They thought all of it, the whole world, was collapsing. The ground never stopped its tremble.

A decade after those nights the invasion would begin, and soon there would be no bed to lie in. There would be no home and no place to go home to. Home would become Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden. It would become a screen of posted gatherings, a birth, and every so often, the death of someone you vaguely remember. The Book of Dreams is written in letters I cannot read. Several nights before writing this, I dreamt of mountains and snow. I walked over the peaks, and came upon the large carcass of a strange animal in front of me. Looking closely, I saw this was not the only one. They were all around me, their dark hair, skin and hooves in frozen bundles. My friend appeared, the same childhood friend who, three decades ago, told me I must be psychic. The snow falling, she told me it would be ok, that we would get home. But I knew she was wrong, that she was from a different place. I looked into the night and down the deep slope. The fur of an animal as large as a buffalo was exposed, half buried in the glowing night ice; it lay motionless a few feet away from my own. This was a search with no end. Up in the sky, miles from the ground and covered in wet snow, we are burning.

* * *

Iraq is a country built, it is said, on an ocean of oil. The shallow seas and the creatures that once floated within them dried up, buried and materialized over millions of years into the fluid that would eventually run the future. The intensity of the earth’s heat transformed once living creatures into resource; millions of years later, the living creatures on that land too would become a resource for what is called advancement. The sacrifice of Iraqi life, screened worldwide in 1991 and named the first Space War by the militaries that executed it, would be used to roll out to record audiences,the technology running this era of global movement, transaction, exchange. GPS, wars on terror, misinformation, the accumulation of wealth derived from the attempted extermination of people and human experience alike.

It is said that, on Iraq’s richest oil sites, one can throw a rock and see the smoke rise. From time to time, the viscous liquid will seep out of porous segments of Earth, creating black pools and streams on its surface. In occupation upon occupation—from America’s coalition to Daesh—wells are burned, gas flamed, oil leaked into homes, into the throats of the living and generations of the unborn. And still, there are other ways heat and its aftermath reconfigures life.

Artist Sajjad Abbas writes to us from Baghdad, where he has witnessed the combustion of cars, bodies, and opportunity. His work documents and responds to the afterlife and continued resistance to the greed and indifference that fuels the insatiable burning of Baghdad.

Early in the historic Iraqi uprising of 2019, the activist and poet Safa al-Sarray was killed by the expulsion of a tear gas canister to his head. Prolific novelist, professor and poet Sinan Antoon continues his work of illuminating the poets of Iraq as yet another form of resistance in his  translation of  several of al-Sarray’s works. Antoon does this for those of us who only knew him as a symbol, one of many who will never have the chance to share their words with a world they were cut out of.

In large, sweeping views, and in the smallest details of personal and physical landscape, artist Jananne Al-Ani takes the violent media saturation of Iraq and reverses its course through an evidencing of experience -its imprint on land and in the trajectory of lives. Her images, and the deep research comprising them, resurrect history and its bodily imprint with a helming that is authoritative, loving, in their hypnotic evocations.

Artist Rheim Alkadhi has spent several years researching Majnoon (crazy), one of the largest known oil fields, named for the incredulity of its size. In southern Iraq, Alkadhi uses a transformative, intimate mode of cataloging to construct alternative narratives of its saturating presence and the infiltration of its name. In an experiment of image and language, she takes from the field’s most enduring presence, the flame, to reveal a site that produces far more than prodigious crude.

Medical anthropologist and musician Omar Dewachi has provided comprehensive, original research on the intricate and wide ranging effects of the Iraq wars on the human body and their relationship to the systems of medical care meant to address them. From the simple wound to profound migration, Dewachi’s work is focused on the most vulnerable, critical material of war, our flesh.

In this issue, contributors take on the constant of flame and the desire to burn. What it demands from us and the new compositions it leaves behind. In the context of Iraq, each reconfigures this force, in the established context of extraction through fire and its corresponding resistance in physical, written and imagined form.

Issue: 03 03/22_08/22

ش.ب.ح (Ghost)

Guest editor: Mirene Arsanios

Written contributions by Haytham El Wardany & Lama El Khatib, Suneela Mubayi, Christian Nyampeta, Salma Shamel, and Asiya Wadud.

Artistic contributions by Maxime Hourani.

ب.ش.ر (Human) 

Guest editor: Sumayya Kassamali

Written contributions by Majd al-Shihabi, Alexandra Chreiteh, Golrokh Nafisi, Hicham Safieddine, and Hana Sleiman.

Artistic contributions by Aline Deschamps.

ح.ر.ق (Fire)

Guest editor: Rijin Sahakian

Written contributions by Sajjad Abbas, Jananne Al-Ani, Rheim Alkadhi, Sinan Antoon, and Omar Dewachi.

Artistic contributions by Sajjad Abbas, Jananne Al Ani, Rheim Alkadhi, and Omar Dewachi. 

What Sorcery is this?

In Tim Burton’s 2012 film Dark Shadows, adapted from a Goth sitcom aired on American TV between the 60’s and 70’s, Johnny Depp plays the role of Barnabas Collins, long undead and inadvertently awoken from a centuries-long slumber by construction workers. In a classic trope of the time travel genre, Barnabas, not a time traveler so much as traveled by time, sees brother and sister duo The Carpenters performing their hit song On Top of the World on television. Alarmed and angered by the sight, Barnabas rushes towards the ornate wood-paneled set (the film takes place in the 70’s) and begins ripping out its internal wires. “What sorcery is this?” he asks, ordering the singer to “reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”

The question “What sorcery is this?” has come to circulate in meme form, generally mocking luddites and other idiots who, when faced with elements they are unable to comprehend, resort to magic and the supernatural to make sense of things.

It’s endlessly funny, really, but the interrogation is actually at the dark genocidal core of modernity, a fault line drawn in blood by the enlightenment project. For the moderns, progress was predicated, among other impulses, on the drive to organize the world into categories, classifications and taxonomies. Unsurprising then that the inability of some societies to discriminate or differentiate along these lines would classify them, in turn, among the ranks of the primitives, the colonized, the insane, the hysterical, the infantile, the not quite human…

Who can tell the difference between animate subjects and inanimate objects? Between humans and non-humans? Who is rational and who is backward? Who does not have the scientific knowledge to explain perfectly understandable things and instead runs for the hills, crying witchcraft? For Freud and many other whites at the time, the answer was ‘the savage’. The savage believes that signs carry the power of their referents and that the two are tied by a shared energy (like a talisman for example,) a belief that conflates the symbolic and the real.[1] Anthropologists used to call this kind of thing Animism, a system of beliefs that was not predicated on the principle of “an objectified nature composed of absolute facts” on the one hand, and a thinking subject separate from the object of study on the other. This detached, thinking subject would be none other than the modern, Cartesian Man.[2]

But even the moderns never really abided by the neat divides they had so painstakingly erected, suffice it to mention the libidinal impulses, anxieties and irrational fears that undergirded the modernist drives. The most urgent matters facing the planet today have exposed the epistemic limitations of Cartesian thought;[3] and the idea of modern man as perpetrator of a disastrous chain of environmental events, from the so-called discovery of the New World to global warming, has gained substantial traction, at least in activist and academic circles.

As well, the ever-expanding capacities of computation, of what is calculable, predictable, modelable, has cracked open notions of linear time, subjectivity, individuality and agency in unprecedented ways. Conceptions of urban environments —with all their humans, their electric grids, their homes, buses, etc…— in the image of the free market makes cities into highly complex self-regulating systems, organisms which bring into motion disparate elements into one efficient flow —think cybernetics, IoT, smart cities etc.[4]

Within these arrangements, where humans and objects are constantly shaping, traversing and animating one another, taxonomies of sentient and non steadily erode.[5] So too does the idea that rational thought or cognition in general is equipped to treat the complexities of the world. What emerges instead is the conviction that the world is predicated on variables so vast and complex only computational intelligence can make sense of it and keep it running.

The supremacy of this kind of algorithmic governmentality as generalized organizing logic, from our neurons to the world at large, constitutes the eruption of a new form of animism, one that flips on its head another more fundamental metaphysical dichotomy: the capacity through symbolic representation —mainly language— to take stock of the world and another capacity, historically subservient to the first, to shape the world through techne, or through the production of human-made instruments.[6] This new animism believes that metrics produced by calculating instruments are more adequate to reflect the world than thought or analysis.[7]

Indeed, Prometheus’s yanking of fire from Zeus was also meant to remedy mankind’s helplessness in a world controlled by the gods. Prometheanism came to signify the belief that, through synthetic means, there is no limit to our plasticity and the plasticity of the world. But it is also the belief that we can only fully know that which we make. The only way to truly know the world we live in then is to make a synthetic alternative to the organic world, which is knowable only to “God,” its creator.[8]

With such radical shifts in the fabric of lived experience, it is crucial not to fall into the historical myopia which has many theorizing from the precipice of exceptional times  (“the world has never been so,” “we live in a time of” …) Among the data subjects flowing frictionless are the heavy ghosts of the brutal past who persist in the present and have already shaped the future. Ghosts of those whose status as human was always under attack. Those who were kidnapped and trafficked as human property, who were extracted like carbon, or domesticated like animals, ghosts who dwell in the ruins of a world combusted through and through.

In this issue of the Derivative, we propose three words to three new guest editors. Mirene Arsanios will conjure the ghost, the pesky revenant that persistently seeks redress for the deep systemic injustices perpetrated by mankind. Sumayya Kassamali addresses the human, the contours of its agency and the manners in which personhood is made and unmade by legal and social instruments. Rijin Sahakian plays with fire as a stand-in for the vertiginous development of mass killing machines, as a force of resetting histories and erasing civilizations, but also as metaphor for a relentless and contagious will to fight.


[1] Bracken, Christopher. Magical Criticism: The Recourse of Savage Philosophy. The University of Chicago Press, 2007,p. 2.

[2] Franke, Anselm. “Introduction.” Animism (Volume 1), ed. by Anselm Franke. Sternberg Press, 2010, p.12.

[3] Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. by Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press, 1993.

[4] Spencer, Douglas. The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, pp. 17-46.

[5] Mbembe, Joseph-Achille. Brutalisme. La Découverte, 2020, p. 27.

[6] Ibid, p. 33.

[7] Ibid, p. 83.

[8] Brassier, Ray. “Promethianism and Its Critics.” #accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader. Ed. By Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian. MIT Press, 2014, p.477.