Human (ب.ش.ر)

Sumayya Kassamali

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.