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

Ahmad Ghossein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation: Jamal Ghosn – Haig Aivazian – Lori Kharpoutlian