Punctuating Anxiety

Ghenwa Hayek

Souhaib Ayoub, Untitled, watercolor. 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig. 1. “Immigrant Nationality.” Ad-Dabbour Magazine, June 6, 1927, p. 1. Copyright © 1927 Ad-Dabbour Magazine.

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

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

Fig. 2. “Mothers’ Ambitions.” Ad-Dabbour Magazine, October 29, 1928, p. 16. Copyright © 1928 Ad-Dabbour Magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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