Unraveling: Act I (SCENE BREAKDOWN)
[BLACK SCREEN: VOICE-OVER]
I don’t question the originality of the invitation’s conceit and the thrill of being invited to contribute; however, when the email from Ahmad and Haig assigning the word “qalaq” to my contribution arrived, I nearly screamed with rage.
It landed in my inbox during the Second Confinement – I use capital letters to periodize the experience with the pandemic. In the framework of this extended present tumbling in an unsettling circular temporality, it felt and seemed impossible to think critically, meaningfully, poetically about a notion or sentiment that pervaded my conscious and subconscious, that corroded, bedeviled, and overcast the hours – just as it was impossible to guess what the months ahead promised, a Third Confinement, or the relief of worldwide vaccinations. As if the two dear friends were asking me to deconstruct the monster as it held me in its grips and was about to devour me.
I was incapable of declining the invitation; it was, after all, a distraction, perhaps a fugue, from the grim imperium of isolation.
Gradually, the idea of wrestling with the monster became tempting. Threading words, images, allegories began to feel like pinning down, tracing contours, taming… the high-grade anxiety double-bill of the SARS COVID-19 worldwide pandemic and the collapse of the Lebanese postwar covenant.
The taming proved a wild ride – words did not fail me, but smithing sentences and paragraphs did.
Locked in the double bill of anguish, I was speaking in tongues, undecipherable, nonsensical to those who were not tapped into the reality of Lebanon’s collapse and the collapsological discourse of European theorists whose voices were piercing mainstream left media.
I took cue from the most renowned astrologer in the Lebanese mediascape. While he receives visions, which he describes as tableaux, my text below is organized in vignettes, or scenes of a script that is coming undone. The order of this script keeps reshuffling, alternating its ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ in a desperate attempt to narrate the double unraveling that I am witnessing, enduring, and embattled with.
[SCENE 24: BEIRUT. INTERIOR (MORNING). PACKING SUITCASE]
In times of high-grade anxiety, times of intense disquiet, of gnawing worriment (what is the correct English word for qalaq?) everything becomes amplified to the register of the irrational. The crackle of furniture sounds suspiciously like an attempted break-in; the grumble of a car tearing the eerie silence of the COVID-locked-down night sounds ominously like a low-flying Israeli drone. In times of high-grade anxiety, every insignificant incident feels like a sign. A light bulb suddenly blowing up into smithereens signals impending catastrophe; a hummingbird landing on the branch of the bougainvillea tree ushers impending felicity. Metaphors and allegories distend their evocative prowess and billow more frequently when interpreting events, engaging with the Real, answering phone calls, writing emails, deciphering the news – fact from fake from delusion.
[SCENE 3: BERLIN. EXTERIOR STREET CORNER, WAITING IN A CUE TO ENTER THE SUPERMARKET]
This script was written and ceaselessly come undone between Beirut and Berlin. At the intuitive level, the high-grade anxiety refers to living in Beirut, but I carry it with me, within the interstices of the hours of everyday life in Berlin. When did life in Beirut move from low-grade anxiety to a higher level of anxiety? The question is superfluous; it does not really matter when the devolution began. The point is that time has begun to move in the pattern of the figure eight, or the sign for infinity, or a pretzel. Desperate for reassurance, I keep telling myself (and others) that it shall pass, like so many other terrifying chapters before. But the mere evocation of these other chapters only resurrects their specters. The devaluation of the Lebanese Lira in the 1980s, for instance, is not quite the same as the one taking place since the beginning of 2020. The pit in which the country has fallen this time is deeper. Or does it only feel like that because it’s the second time I experience it in my lifetime? Some of the political protagonists of the country’s persistent dismemberment and further bloodletting in the 1980s are still around, albeit performing – nominally – different roles. Notably different is the one playing the role of the head of the Central Bank. While Edmond Naïm undertook extraordinarily dramatic measures to protect what seemed to be the only remaining pillar of the Lebanese state (and the five billion in reserves in 1987); in contrast, Riad Salameh’s actions are more akin to those of a sleaze. Salameh’s neoliberal savoir faire has included bartering the national treasury to benefit sectarian warlords and guileful bankers and smoothing the passage to the impunity provided by offshore fiscal shelters. What has not changed is how society, or the different communities that make up this republic’s people, has and continues to be, in effect, collateral damage. Can collateral damage become a political category? How unknowing have we been, were we, are we?
[SCENE 1: BEIRUT. INTERIOR APARTMENT (AFTERNOON)]
August 9th or 10th, 2020 (I don’t recall the exact date). A few days after the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut, a television news report follows the establishment of a military hospital to provide immediate relief to victims of the blast. It was donated by the Moroccan kingdom and set up somewhere between the areas of Bourj Hammoud and Naba‘a. The ticker tape identifies the location as Tel el-Zaatar, a location erased from the geography of the city in 1977. The journalist speaking into the microphone was not born when the refugee camp was held under siege and razed to the ground, but the specters resurrected by the mere appearance of the name choked me.
[SCENE 18: BEIRUT. INTERIOR APARTMENT. BALCONY]
Winter this year bears all the signs of global warming. It is January, but the sun is shining brightly in the sky; the temperatures are mild; the plants on the balcony of my apartment are blooming as if springtime were already here. For a few days now, at about 9:00 am, a tiny bird with a thin long curved beak, black plumage that reflects blue in the sun, sits on one of the winding branches of the bougainvillea and starts to sing wildly. I was sitting at the dining room table (my makeshift office desk), staring without moving lest a brusk gesture might shoo it away. Within a few minutes, another bird of the same family joined; the two engaged in some sort of a conversation for a few minutes and then flew away together. From the extremely rapid flapping of their tiny wings, and after some research, I figured out that my visitors were hummingbirds though I had never seen hummingbirds in Beirut. Throughout that month, save for the spare days of rain, the hummingbirds came every morning almost as if on schedule, and I began to wake up early so as not to miss their visit.
I came to believe that they were not visiting for the flowers but for me. I came to believe that they were, in fact, the incarnation of friends I had lost because of burst arteries, virulent cancer, or car bombs. I came to believe they were Samir (Kassir), Omar (Amiralay), Jytte (Jensen), Eqbal (Ahmad).
[SCENE 14: BERLIN. INTERIOR APARTMENT, DAYBREAK WINTER LIGHT STREAMING FROM WINDOW]
In the winter light of daybreak in Berlin, on the dining room table (my makeshift desk office), Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet lies waiting to be reopened, promising the relief of profound insight – the possibility that I might discover that the disquiet Pessoa transcribed (which has amplified into anguish in my here and now) might actually be a mint of the twentieth century, the legacies of which might be ending now. Modernity and modernization – theory, dogma, ideology, and policy – are existentially intertwined with disquiet. Disquiet –Pessoa’s, Munch’s, Hikmet’s and so many others’– which, at the turn of the century, was the discernment of poets, became reified after the Second World War as generative fuel, ersatz for creativity. In the right doses, it was deemed to produce beauty; in excess doses, it produced monstrosity – xenophobia, internment camps, identity politics.
[SCENE 18: BEIRUT. EXTERIOR ABDEL-AZIZ STREET]
Daydreaming while walking. We, the Lebanese, had it coming. We knew the big bang was coming, that the system was unsustainable, that the political class was not perennial, although they were grooming sons and sons-in-law. Was I complicit in the survival of the regime? Undeniably.
We, the entire population of this planet, had the pandemic coming as well. The culture of narcissistic indifference that neoliberal ideology celebrates does not empower survival. We should have taken the previous outbreaks of the SARS, MERZ, and Ebola epidemics more seriously, just as we should have considered the child soldiers enlisted in the militia wars of the Congo, Central Africa, and elsewhere as our own and the deforestation of the Amazon as the deforestation of our own land. They all touched us, affected our lives irrevocably, and amounted to the tragedies that torment our humanity and planet. In keeping the wheels of global commerce running, I was complicit too, undeniably.
[SCENE 25: BEIRUT. INTERIOR BYBLOS BANK SITTING ON A BENCH WAITING FOR TELLER]
Prior to ATM cards becoming commonplace, I always scheduled trips to the bank on weekdays at hours when it was unlikely to find a crowd because I wanted to avoid discussing my erratic financial status (the wages of being a freelancer) within an earshot of others. Bank tellers, especially those I had become familiar with and whose disposition allowed playful ‘motherly’ rebuke, displayed no inhibition making remarks about my accounts being in the red or suddenly bloated from a hefty wire transfer. In the aftermath of the devaluation of the Lebanese Lira and of the COVID outbreak, going to the bank transformed into an entirely different experience. The tellers were the frontline enforcers of the perfidy. All signs of affability, familiarity, and compassion vanished. Supervisors ambulating on the floor made sure to inhibit them. And the customers became potentially dangerous, capable of uncontrollable outbursts from frustration with the ever-changing punitive measures against depositors. Security guards were posted inside the buildings, armed with thermometers and frowns to protect the bank’s staff from customers.
Capitalist forms of production and social relations wield anxiety. For Marxists and theorists from various colorations of the Left, it is the vital and dynamic yield that coheres the social order, shapes subjectivity, molds status, and compels submission. From the Fordist production line worker, alienated from the commodity or object s/he manufactures, to the working and middle classes of slipping into further debt, of losing social status, anxiety is the anesthetic that pervades the folds and wrinkles of social and political life, displacing time.
[SCENE 27: BERLIN. DAY (SPRING LIGHT). INTERIOR DINING ROOM]
I belong to the community of people on this planet that believes that the SARS COVID-19 pandemic is the outcome of the entrenchment of the different stages of neoliberal capitalism across the world, along with the triumph of anthropocene ideology that it deploys. Our present calamity is the consequence of globalizing production under the aegis of a deregulated market and the value system that every government in the world seems to have elected to defend. It is the consequence of sustained prevailing systemic contempt for the welfare of non-human living forms and ecosystems, the disinvestment in public services (such as healthcare), disregard for damage to the environment, indifference to staggering social and economic inequities, and scorn for the basic fundamentals that foster collectivity and solidarity. On the upside, the pandemic provided the unimaginable experience of what would happen if economic production and commerce regressed to the supply of basic essentials –the very anti-thesis of neoliberal capitalism.
The prevailing discord in the aftermath of the emergency is one of perception; one camp sees the pandemic as the manifestation of a glitch, while the other camp sees it as the drastic failure of system that has become untenable. Those who propone the “glitch” view aspire to return to the so-called “normal” after the vaccinations have reached the level to ensure herd immunity. That camp concedes that some corrective measures might prove beneficial in the meantime; to alleviate the sharp reductions in all economic indicators (productivity, gross domestic product, growth), most governments have injected wide-scale pseudo-Keynesian stimuli. But far from heralding a return to the so-called welfare state, these policies are intended to save neo-liberal capitalism from a predicament it has produced in the first place. At the threshold of a system falling apart, those who defend it are out of ideas, out of solutions, and out of breath. To them, the pandemic is dystopia, but what they call progress, growth, and prosperity broke people’s backs and damaged the natural environment shared with other species.
I belong to the opposing camp and see in the trials of the pandemic a rare opportunity to shift from an economic ethos predicated on growth to an ethos of sustainable degrowth, equitable redistribution wealth, repair, reversal (if possible) of the damage to the environment, and, most crucially, an empowerment of the common and reshaping of the body politic. New subjectivities have to be forged, and this is essentially where art, poetry, performance, music, and film can contribute. If the legacies and memory of the Spanish flu have been erased, we can simply look back at the HIV pandemic to evaluate the role of the arts in leading the charge to destigmatize social, political, and psychological perceptions that shrouded carriers of the virus.
[SCENE 32: BERLIN. DAWN (WINTER). INTERIOR DINING ROOM]
Dare I think that our time has come? Our? Yes, we, who are living with plundered public services; without health insurance or pension; broken by loans; risking unemployment, eviction, bankruptcy, discrimination; chronically sickened by pollution and by genetically modified over-processed foods; and thirsty for water, clean, and plastic-free water. To borrow another notion from clinical psychology, the pandemic and the various lockdowns, in spite of their anguished and hefty burdens on most working and unemployed folks, have felt like a “lucid interval”, a momentary lapse of unreason, a confrontation with the Real of neoliberal capital. When and how will the passage to act manifest itself?