Author Archives: Joel

Collapse of Lebanon’s Second Republic

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. xii-xiv (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

But the main issue was that the war chiefs–turned–political leaders seized control of the government and public sector, in concert with the generals of the Syrian occupying forces, and together they developed a system of governance that was entirely based on clientelistic mafia practices. They took advantage of the huge public works program for the reconstruction of the country, and of the bountiful financial manna this generated, to shamelessly enrich themselves and to entrench corruption as a system of government and a way of life, with the culpable consent of a powerful caste of arrogant bankers. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of thirty years of renewed opulence, euphoria, creativity, and vitality, when the population shamefully closed their eyes to the actions of this noxious political class.

In 2005, the Sunni prime minister Rafic Hariri, the only politician who was not a former war chief and who showed himself to be extremely hostile to the Syrian control of the country, was assassinated by the Syrians with the help of Hezbollah. This sparked a huge insurrection, which forced the Syrians to withdraw. Those previously banished (Michel Aoun) or who were political prisoners (Samir Geagea) returned. But former allies of Syria, such as Berri, Jumblatt, and the Hezbollah chiefs, managed to stay in power. New alliances sprang up between them and those who had returned, which led to the persistence of the same clientelism and corruption in political practices as under the occupation. This finally brought about the collapse of the country in 2020—a disaster which the present diary documents from day to day.

Despite this tormented history, Lebanon really had been, and perhaps could still be, a laboratory for some important political and social experiments. The first of these experiments is the management of multiculturalism and religious coexistence, which have endured despite violent convulsions, and lead every day to new forms of acculturation and cultural diversity. This small country has also been the laboratory where the processes of transforming family, clan, and community affiliation into a sense of citizenship are repeated on a daily basis. In other words, it is like a small-scale reenactment under a bell jar of the very genesis of any democracy.

Unfortunately these experiments have been slow to be reflected in political practice. They have suffered from being subverted or misappropriated by the ruling class, whose poor governance, corruption, and clientelization of the citizenry on the basis of community affiliation might also serve as a test case. The crisis in Lebanon in 2020 showed the dangers resulting from hyperliberal economic policies and the absence of any regulatory authority or control over the country’s social or economic life, which have turned political leaders into mafia bosses in their dealings with the nation’s citizens. The Lebanese people were forced to endure this hyperliberalism and the transformation of the public sector into a mafialike structure. They were obliged, day in and day out, to invent original forms of social and civic regulation and transaction, in the absence of any higher authority doing so. For several decades, they thought that this might also serve as a model, before they understood that a world where the banks and the super-wealthy seek to manage the life of ordinary citizens by depriving them of any official recourse to government was a complete disaster on all levels—be it social, economic, urban, or ecological. In this way as well, Lebanon’s recent history and collapse might serve as a forewarning and alarm bell for the entire planet.

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Lebanon’s Civil War and Its Aftermath

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. x-xii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

All this explains why the tensions between the large religious groups remained very strong, in particular because the constitution created in 1945 implicitly gave more power to the roles reserved for Christians than to those accorded to Muslims. The Muslims demanded reforms, but the Christians, fearing for their status and survival and continuing to believe that Lebanon was created for them, refused. Moreover, the Christians held great fears at the prospect of the rise in power and militarization of the Palestinian organizations that had sprung from the refugee communities in Lebanon in 1948, and that started demanding to play a role in internal Lebanese politics in 1969 and 1970. The strategy of these organizations consisted in giving their support to Lebanese Muslims. Faced with this coalition of Islamic-Palestinian interests, the Lebanese Christians took fright and armed themselves in turn, leading inevitably to the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

This was indeed a civil war, in that most of the fighting was between the Lebanese people themselves, but it was also very much a foreign war, because the Palestinians, Syrians, and Israelis were also involved. In 1982 the Palestinian militias were forced out of Lebanon by the Israeli invasion. But the Israelis had to evacuate the invaded Lebanese territories and confine themselves to the southern border regions adjacent to Israel. This opened Lebanon’s doors to the Syrians, who allied themselves with the Lebanese Muslims and Druzes, and with war chiefs such as the Druze Walid Jumblatt or the Shiite Nabih Berri, as well as with the Shiite Hezbollah organization, which was engaged in a war with Israel in the regions it still occupied. For their part, the Christians resisted the Syrians for years, under the command of men such as Bashir Gemayel and Samir Geagea. In 1989, the reckless and unruly Christian general Michel Aoun took it into his head to unite the Christian ranks, and threw himself into devastating wars against his rivals on the same side, notably Samir Geagea, which led to the collapse of the Christian camp in 1990 and to the entire country falling to Syrian control.

This marked the end of the civil war and the start of what is called the second Lebanese republic, which is divided into two eras. In the first, from 1990 to 2005, Syria dominated the country and its ruling class. The Muslim or Druze war chiefs, Jumblatt, Berri, along with the Hezbollah leaders, but also the less powerful Christian leaders who had pledged allegiance to the Syrians, all took over the controls. The other Christian leaders, such as Geagea and Aoun, found themselves respectively either in prison or in exile. The allocation of posts along religious lines was reinstated during this period, but with a notable difference: the dominant positions were given to Muslims and no longer to Christians.

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Foundations of Lebanon’s Exceptionalism

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. viii-x (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

This peculiar identity could undoubtedly be considered as the source of all the conflicts to come, but it also proved to be Lebanon’s defining characteristic for many years: a nation straddling the great cultures of the East and the West, a crossroads, a herald of coexistence, openness, cultural exchange and integration. For the thirty years from 1945 to 1975, despite a few minor jolts, Lebanon also figured as something of an exception among its neighbors. It was the only country in the region not to fall prey to a nationalist military dictatorship, like Egypt under Nasser and Iraq or Syria under the Baath parties. It was the only democracy of the Arab world, and one of very few in what was then called the third world. It also developed a liberal economy which has endured to this day, within a region entirely dominated by so-called socialist models—models which, in Nasser’s Egypt and in Syria and Iraq, led to disastrous nationalizations, to the disappearance of their middle classes and the impoverishment of their populations. Lebanon thus lived for thirty years in unbelievable opulence and enjoyed exceptional cultural and economic vitality.

It now seems clear that it was precisely because of the diversity of its population and the complexity of its human institutions that Lebanon avoided dictatorship and the so-called socialist models that beset the rest of the Arab world between 1950 and 1975. Religious affiliation, which in Lebanon is more cultural than strictly faith-based, underpinned all political relationships and balances. This was made manifest in the strangest political system imaginable, called “confessionalism.” All government posts were allocated approximately equally between religious communities. Every single employment position in the public sector, from the highest level in a ministry to its lowest echelons, was reserved for one or another community, depending on its presumed importance. The president of the republic had to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and so on. This political system prevented any single community or individual from controlling the government, and averted any possibility of hegemony or coups.

All this nevertheless created something like an oligarchic system, where the political leaders were systematically elected from the most important family clans within the large religious groups. They ruled the country collegially, on the basis of elections where the focus was always on the interests of the various religious communities, rather than on political issues. And yet the social classes that divided society were strongly intercultural. A real middle class had arisen from both Muslim and Christian communities, in the face of wealthy upper classes that also recruited from various groups, just as the working classes had members from both sides of the religious divide. However, social identity and affiliation never produced true class consciousness, but were always dominated by a very strong sense of religious, cultural, and community affiliation.

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Lebanon Before Independence

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. vi-viii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

For centuries, the religious mosaic and cultural diversity thus introduced into the lands that would become Lebanon were more or less well managed by the central powers of the empires on which Lebanon and its neighbors depended. Of course, there were clashes and conflicts, but everything remained under the slightly manipulative control of the dominant powers, and notably, from the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries, of the Ottoman Empire.

When that empire collapsed in 1918, victorious France and Great Britain divided up the Middle East. It was France that secured the mandate over Lebanon, thus fulfilling the wishes of part of its Christian population, which sought to place itself under French protection and to avoid British rule. It should be noted that the Christians had long felt closely connected to France. Many had adopted the French language and culture well before the period of the Mandate, and had dreamed of the French taking control of the country to rid them of the Ottoman occupation. This privileged relationship between the Christians of Lebanon and the French also explains why the Lebanese never felt any hostility toward France. In the Lebanese worldview, France was never seen as an occupying power, but rather as an ally. Only the highly ideological left-wing discourse of the 1970s attempted to represent France as a colonial power, which it never really was in Lebanon, despite some instances of very transient irregularities. In fact it was with the assistance of the Christians, and on their advice, that the French determined the current borders of Lebanon in 1920: they adjoined a long band of coastline and the interior plain of Beqaa to the original Lebanon Mountains, along with the northernmost part of Galilee in the south. The overriding aim was to unite as many regions as possible where the inhabitants were Christian. The Maronites, the Eastern-rite Catholics and Greek Orthodox communities actively worked toward the creation of the new nation in its present form, and considered it to have been founded for them alone, even though part of its population was Muslim or Druze. During a relatively soft Mandate that barely lasted twenty-five years, the French successfully managed the antagonisms between the various communities. But when Lebanon acquired independence in 1945, the foundations for discord were already laid, notably regarding the definition of the country’s identity. The Christians still felt closely connected to the West, the Muslims for their part felt they belonged more to the Arab world. Nevertheless, the two communities both demanded and obtained independence together, then found a way of avoiding conflict by decreeing that the new Lebanon was not a Western country, but nor did it belong to the Arab world. This was the famous affirmation of national identity by a double negative.

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Silk Road Dangers Past and Present

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 151-152:

I can’t get last night’s adventures off my mind: have calamitous times finally come?

Crossing over the one-thousand-kilometer mark, the attempted robbery, and the intervention of the army are events that capture perfectly the dangers caravans faced for over two thousand years. Sitting on the second floor of Sivas’s caravansary, now converted into a salon de thé, I muse on the following five plagues that traders and camel drivers so feared: ill health, injuries, natural disasters, thieves, and war. The Silk Road is strewn with tombs. Death hung over the mountains and deserts, striking without warning. Is it any wonder that, when the Polo brothers and young Marco returned after having been gone for twenty-five years, they had been presumed dead and their estate divvied up?

It’s by way of the Silk Road that the plague arrived in Europe, spreading death in stopover towns along the way. Yesterday, I completed the one thousandth kilometer, it’s true, but who’s to say whether I’ll make it to the two thousandth? Aside from my sore feet, I haven’t had any health issues thus far. I’m fit as a fiddle. But there’s still a long way to go. And the conditions in which I’m traveling, sometimes in blatant disregard of basic nutritional or bodily hygiene, by no means guarantee that I’ll arrive in Tehran well rested and raring to go.

Theft was a constant threat on the Silk routes. My adventure yesterday proves that it still is. Gangs would lie in wait for the caravans at narrow passages, ambushing the merchants, steeling their bundles and animals, taking the gold and sometimes the travelers’ lives. The silk, spices, and precious merchandise that paraded by day in and day out right before their eyes aroused envy in the sedentary populations. I too, quite unwittingly, stir up those same desires. In poor villages like Alihacı, I look like a wealthy man from a land of plenty. From that perspective, perhaps it isn’t just a stretch to think that my pack conceals stores of treasure. No one actually did anything, though, until the tractor incident on the road to Alihacı. Although my watch is now tucked away deep in my pocket, it looked a lot like a portable computer, arousing envy. I’ve already been asked several times if I wanted to exchange it for a cheap bazaar timepiece. Two young men suggested I simply give it to them.

Bandits thought twice before attacking thousand-camel caravans, as they were accompanied by a hundred men practically looking for a fight. The lead caravanner also paid several armed men (usually Armenians) to ensure the convoy’s security. Inside the caravansaries—veritable fortresses—security was good. When there was a particularly serious threat, the paşas lent escorts, consisting of dozens of lancers, to accompany the travelers for a certain distance. Revenue from the Silk Road was the local lords’ chief source of income, so they had a vested interest in providing security; otherwise, the caravans would change routes: farewell, then, to all the taxes levied on those transporting precious bundles. Their concern for the merchants’ peace of mind was so great that the authorities of the day invented insurance. If, despite all the precautions, a traveler were robbed, he would submit to the paşa a list of the stolen merchandise and would be reimbursed, either by the paşa himself or by the Sultan. Today, of course, gangs of highwaymen are a thing of the past in Turkey. But alone and unarmed, I’m an easy, tempting target. It wouldn’t take fifty people to steal my “treasures.”

Since ancient times, war has been a permanent way of life on the Silk routes. It’s just as prevalent today, and the entire region of Central Asia is still in this day and age ravaged by local, violent conflicts. While I was preparing my journey, I had to bear this in mind in choosing my itinerary. I had the choice of several ancient routes. I would have liked to begin on the Mediterranean in the ancient city of Antioch and traverse Syria, Iraq, Iran, and then Afghanistan. They are magnificent countries; their peoples and lands are rich in history. But the dangers are all too apparent [in 1999].

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Walking Through a Land of Fear

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 124-126:

The muhtar who takes me in, Talat Tekine, is kafka (Caucasian), as is the entire population here. He tells me that their ancestors arrived in 1874. There isn’t a single Turk in the entire village, and the inhabitants only speak Caucasian. But no one knows how to write in that language, since only Turkish is taught in school. The two other Caucasian villages that I later go through give me the same impression: there is a strong and self-sufficient sense of community, like little Anatolian kolkhozes. People are mentioning terrorists again. And although I take these warnings seriously, I can’t help but notice with a little amusement that the “terrorists” are always other people. At Tokat, where I’d been forewarned that they were everywhere, people said that there weren’t any. The imam at Çıftlik said they were somewhere around Kızık. In Kızık, they said I’d find them in the vicinity of Altınoluk and Çırçır. Now that I’m there, they tell me that they’re mostly near Tokat [a formerly Armenian Christian city]. We’ve come full circle. Still, it’s a warning not to be taken lightly. Garrisoned in this backwater village is a detachment of jandarmas, tasked with fighting terrorism, and their presence here is certainly no coincidence.

The first village I have to traverse is called Akören. As I approach, I see a man step out of the first house. He spots me, goes back inside, and comes promptly back out with what, from a distance, looks like a stick. As I pass him by—he’s in a squatting position, ready to jump me—I notice that the stick is a rifle. The man looks at me with hostile, stern eyes. Panic paralyzes me, and, for a moment, I’m afraid that my knees might give out. Despite the fear gripping me, I muster the courage to hail him with a sonorous and affable “hello,” but unfazed and stubborn, he says nothing. I continue on at a pace that’s as neutral and light as possible, as if my inexistence might ward off the volley of lead the scoundrel intended for my backside.

A little farther along, on the village square, two old men who had seen me coming look away as I draw near. The young whippersnapper washing up at the fountain points the road to the next village when I ask him about it, without even turning around. Once again, I’m stricken with fear. A diffuse sense of fear that makes my heart beat faster. I’ve heard about “terrorists” for a long time; perhaps now I’m in their midst? The day before yesterday, Mustafa, Kızık’s mayor, told me, “There are some in Altınoluk.” That’s one of my next destinations. The three men, like the man wielding a “stick” a short while ago, are uneasy. They’re not hostile; they’re simply paralyzed by fear. It’s not the same fear that seized me when I saw the rifle and that, in a flash, drained me of my energy. No, the fear they feel is permanent, it’s something they live with. It dictates their every move. I also noticed that not one of the few vehicles that passed me on the road, cars or tractors, stopped to offer a ride. Fear trumps curiosity. And workers in the fields no longer wave to invite me over for tea, as they often did before Tokat. I’ve entered the land of fear.

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Some Earlier Travelers on the Silk Road

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 104-105:

Often, as I walk along, I commune with those who preceded me on these roads. John of Plano Carpini, for example, sent by the Pope in 1245. He was in such a hurry to reach the court of the Great Khan that he used Mongolian relays, precursors of the famous American Pony Express. The rider would change steeds up to seven times a day. Upon spotting a relay, he rang a bell. A new steed was saddled up, ready to run. The rider would leap from the tired horse, mount the perky new one, and continue on, flat out. It’s thanks to these riders that the Mongolian emperors were continuously kept informed of what was going on at the opposite end of their empire, which stretched from the China Sea to the borders of Western Europe.

And then there is the shadow of another traveler, Guillaume de Rubrouck, messenger of Saint Louis, who occasionally ventured out onto the steppe. Long before Marco Polo, he gave an account of far-off Tartary, whose name alone struck fear in the hearts of the West’s fiercest fighters. But through an injustice the explanation for which History has kept secret, only the name of Marco Polo went on to become famous.

What has changed in these landscapes since these illustrious travelers journeyed past them? The road is now blacktopped, telegraph poles have been erected? I have only to move a few hundred meters away from the bitumen, and the scenery is changeless. These fields, hills, mountains, croplands, houses, and peasant farmers are unchanged. These herdsmen, watching over their lambs and waving when they see me, live no differently from how their ancestors did who, from time immemorial, watched on as solo travelers or long columns of caravans marched by. Saint Paul frequented these hills. It is said that, in the space of ten years, he traveled over thirty thousand kilometers (18,640 miles) throughout the region. Mostly on foot. Were the shepherds to whom he proclaimed the good news any different from these?

But preachers and caravanners were not alone on these roads. Fearsome armies, too, fought one another here, viciously and without warning. This is why the cities are mostly positioned defensively on hilltops. Villages are hidden in the landscape, nearly invisible, blending in with the scenery. The earth used to build houses, dug up from the ground, has kept its original gray and red hues. Only the roofs, once made of straw or heather, and now made of tiles, stand out vividly against the colorless mountain slopes.

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Turkish Traditions of Hospitality

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 50-51:

Huseyin has disappeared to prepare the meal. He comes back to get me, shows me the bathroom, where, to my great delight, I see that I will be able to take a shower, rinsing off two days’ worth of sweat. Dinner with Huseyin, the schoolteacher, and one of the latter’s colleagues who joined in the meantime, is a joyful event. The younger men display great respect for the old man. When they leave, my host, in spite of all my protests, sets me up in his own room. He will sleep on the sofa in the greeting room.

In the morning, after having groomed, I buckle my pack and knock on his door. He has gone out. He is probably over at last night’s teahouse. I go out, slamming the door closed behind me. But he’s not there. I go back and wait a few moments for him. Then I scribble a word of thanks on a piece of paper and slip it under the door along with a banknote, worth five million liras, in payment for my lodging.

Later that afternoon, a Turk explains to me that in so doing I committed a gross error, that Huseyin will be outraged. What I did was contrary to the traditions of Turkish hospitality. In the Islamic world, to welcome a traveler in one’s home and treat him as best as possible is the believer’s duty. To be hospitable (misafirperver), he explains, means that for you, a good Muslim, it is your duty to treat your guest (misafir), the traveler, with the utmost respect. Your house is his, and you must share your food with him. You will reap the rewards of such kindness in the kingdom of Allah. To bar your door to a traveler is the worst crime a believer can commit. Those of us happily living in the world’s wiser regions would do well, I tell myself, to follow their example.

Among the many words (and place names) that Romanians borrowed from the Turks during centuries of Ottoman rule are musafir ‘guest, visitor’, cafea ‘coffee’, pijama ‘pajamas’, mahala ‘slum’, and habar ‘information, idea’ as in the extremely useful phrase habar n-am ‘I have no idea’.

During our Fulbright year in Romania in 1983-84, we hosted the son of a fellow Fulbright couple who took a brief R&R getaway trip to Istanbul and came back raving about the friendliness and hospitality of the Turks they met, much to the chagrin of normally hospitable Romanians, who during that dark era paid a heavy price for friendship with foreigners. They were required to report any extensive interactions with foreigners to the ubiquitous Securitate, and could be fined a month’s salary or more for providing lodgings to foreigners.

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A Pastoral Veterinarian’s Four Tasks

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 214:

IN EARLY JANUARY, we were graced with a guest of honor. This visitor was very distinguished—he was neither looking for camels nor passing through: he was the veterinarian!

The veterinarian was the guest who had traveled the farthest and who was also the most important, so far. From the banks of the Ulungur, he drove down in a pickup to complete four important tasks: one, vaccinate the sheep; two, geld livestock; three, act as deliveryman for incoming and outgoing parcels; four, give everybody a haircut.

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Pidginized Kazakh, or Calqued Chinese?

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 247:

OTHER THAN THIS, what else did I contribute to the family? Only things like collecting snow, herding calves, herding sheep, embroidering, mending clothes, explaining TV shows … things that anyone could have done. In other words, the presence of someone like me had almost no impact on the family. On the other hand, I was deeply impacted. Especially when it came to speaking. Before I knew it, I was picking up Kazakh speech habits:

When studying Kazakh, I’d say, “Difficulties so many!” (“This is hard.”)

At mealtimes: “Food to eat!”

Asking for help: “A help give to me!”

Announcing that I hadn’t seen the sheep: “Sheep not seen!”

Meaning to say “neither hot nor cold”: “Cold, it’s not, hot, it’s not.”

I am not sure whether these expressions translate the pidginized Kazakh of a new language learner or Kazakh influence on simplified Chinese word order. It is probably the latter, since the author (Li Juan) was writing in Chinese for Chinese readers. Turkic languages like Kazakh are verb-final, and negatives are suffixed to verbs, while Chinese verbs usually occur in medial position (like English) and negatives are preverbal.

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