29 Sep 2010

ذاكرة جماعية أم تكريس سلطة الماضي على الحاضر؟

كلما انتعش النقاش عن وسط بيروت و شركة سوليدير يأتي من يذكرك بمحي الذاكرة الجماعية الذي من المفترض إن مشروع إعادة إعمار بيروت قد مارسه. الغريب إن مفاهيم كهذا تجد طريقها بسرعة إلى النخب و المثقفين و يصبح تردادها فعل إيمان من دون تدقيق أو نقد افتراضاتها المستوردة بأغلبها. و إذا تقاطعت هذه المفاهيم مع ما قد يبدو سطحيا انه مواجهة للاحتكار و الرأسمالية بوجهها المعاصر و مشاريع النخب الحاكمة زاد رواجها و اكتسبت أبعادا يبدو و كأنها تدخلها في مصاف النقاش السياسي العام. لكن قليل من التأمل كاف لقلب هذه المعادلة و كشف الأسس المُحافظة التي تدفعها.

27 Sep 2010

Sects and the City

In my post ‘Hariri / Hezbollah: in search of a new division of labour’ I argued that the climate of fear being created in Lebanon today is a noisy background for the upcoming deal that will seal a power-sharing arrangement between the main political camps under a renewed Syrian patronage. I closed that post by saying ‘we, as always, remain as spectators in all of this.’ This isn’t a call for disengagement and cynicism about politics; on the contrary it’s a call for the Lebanese people to reject all the secret deals being made without our participation. But how can we express our political will in this crucial period as we watch the blatant abdication of responsibility by Lebanese leaders?

The New Superhero on the Block: Syrian, Muslim and in a wheelchair

The 'Silver Scorpion' as he is known is 'the brainchild of a group of disabled young Americans and Syrians who were brought together last month in Damascus by the Open Hands Initiative, a non-profit organization founded by U.S. philanthropist and businessman Jay T. Snyder.'

The appearance of the superhero has not been finalised, but these early sketches show 'a Muslim boy who lost his legs in a landmine accident and later becomes the Silver Scorpion after discovering he has the power to control metal with his mind.'

It's not known yet whether the superhero will be using his super powers in neighbouring Lebanon.

Am I the only one to think that calling an amputee 'scorpion' is cruelly ironic?

Read full story here.

23 Sep 2010

UnCommon Wealth Games: Why the West loves to put India down

The problems dogging the Commonwealth Games in India have been quickly seized upon by Western commentators and athletes as an opportunity to put India back in its place. It seems that when it comes to the West's anxiety about the Rising East, the latter can't do anything right. China was criticised for the Beijing Olympic Games being elaborate and excessive, and now India is getting grief for its lack of proper preparation. The collapse of the pedestrian bridge that highlighted those problems is a tragedy, but it's astounding how this event was then used cynically to mount a vitriolic campaign against India.

22 Sep 2010

Countdown to the return of Syrian troops? Jumblatt says so.

Think I was exaggerating when I talked about the return of the Syrian patronage over Lebanon? Now Walid Jumblatt has declared his public support for the return of Syrian troops. This is an excerpt from his conversation with Michael Young:

“We’re heading toward civil war if things remain as they are,” Jumblatt told me this week.

“What about the Syrians?” I asked.

21 Sep 2010

Hariri / Hezbollah: In search of a new division of labour

The political fluctuations in Lebanon are often reported through meteorological metaphors. This is partially due to the fact that we have as much control over politics as we do over the weather. If the media is to be believed these days, rough storms are heading our way. Allegations of impending coups from one side are reciprocated by allegations about secret conspiracies with the west and Israel from the other. The truth, as usual, is much less dramatic.

It is easy to get carried away with the shrill tone of political reporting and rhetoric, but it’s often forgotten that this is usually part of the political jostling before anticipated settlements. The big headline for this period is the precise nature of the political arrangement that will ensue from Syria’s return as the main ‘player’ on the Lebanese scene. Saad Hariri’s exoneration of Syria and his statement about the political accusations that implicated it in the assassination of his father has created the ground conditions for Syria’s renewed patronage over Lebanon, but the shape of this stewardship is yet to be worked out.

Hariri and Hezbollah are effectively engaged in a power struggle to ensure the most advantageous positions within this arrangement. But this is not an open ended struggle; it’s more of an attempt at judging what will be possible under this new paradigm. All the talk of coups and conspiracies is part of the usual background noise that precedes such resolutions.

It’s worth remembering Hassan Nasrallah’s statement on the eve of Burj Abi Haidar clashes in which he declared that Hezbollah can overthrow the government in the parliament and does not need to agitate on the street in order to achieve this objective. The one thing that prevents Hezbollah and its allies from seizing power is Syrian influence. The blunt question to ask is if Hezbollah really believed in all the allegations about their opponents’ collusion with Israel, then why is it letting them run the country?

Let’s remember that the previous arrangement that ended the civil war and dictated how the country was run for a decade and a half was also orchestrated through a Saudi-Syrian agreement, albeit with a much larger role for the US at the time. The arrangement that ensued from the Taif Agreement created a division of labour between Hezbollah and Hariri the father, famously known as the development/resistance formula. In other words, Hariri was charged with development and reconstruction while Hezbollah handled the resistance against Israel.

Part of the explanation for the tension we are witnessing today is that this formula is not easy to resurrect for various reasons. For starters, the strict division of labour is not adequate any longer. Hezbollah has been increasingly more active in reconstruction and development since 2006, and it has had several achievements on that front. (Helped with the flow of Qatari and Iranian funds.) Hariri’s intelligence apparatus meanwhile has had various successes in discovering Israeli spy rings and arresting high-profile agents. Their roles have become increasingly overlapping.

This is partially more relevant in the case of Hezbollah because Hariri’s spy catcher apparatus is not an integral part of his political project. Hezbollah’s role in fighting Israel on the other hand cannot be expressed as aggressively as it used to be anymore. The 2006 war is still seen as a victory by the Party but, as Nasrallah remarked afterwards, the cost was quite high. Despite the talk of war that we constantly hear from both sides, it’s unlikely that Hezbollah or Israel see any strategic gains in any major confrontations anymore.

Hezbollah’s recently opened Museum of Resistance in Mleeta illustrates the nature of this new phase in Hezbollah’s existence. It is an indication that Hezbollah is now ready to see military resistance as part of its history. This does not mean that Hezbollah will lay down its weapons, but that any confrontations with Israel in the future are likely to be limited in nature. You don’t build a $4 million project and plan a large touristic development around it if you’re expecting to be engaged in a war.

The recent frequent critiques of Solidere are another indication of the changing nature of this division of labour between Hezbollah and Hariri. During the period of Syrian hegemony, criticism of Hariri’s monopoly over development was never translated into any meaningful action or alternative plan. In fact, the law that brought Solidere into being wouldn’t have been approved without the consent of all the major parliamentary blocks at the time. It’s very hypocritical today to deny responsibility for the decisions taken in the 90s by any of the political blocks that were in parliament then. Such criticism today is more of a declaration of intentions that, in the coming period, Hariri’s monopoly on development will be challenged.

Will Hariri be willing to concede? We will have to wait and see. But two things are for sure. First, the current escalation is only part of the tactical jostling and its effects will be contained in time in preparation for the next political period. Second, the division of labour between Hariri and Hezbollah will be reproduced in a new format, one that we haven’t quite grasped yet. We, as always, remain as spectators in all of this.

Doubts about Zaha Hadid's return to Baghdad

Following my post yesterday about Zaha Hadid being commissioned to design the new building for the Central Bank of Iraq, a friend drew my attention to articles in the Iraqi press discussing the subject. It seems that another firm has been working on the design of the new CBI headquarters and is more than half way through the process. So far there has been no clarification from the CBI itself about this apparent conflict, but there's been a fair bit of speculation.

20 Sep 2010

Deconstruction doesn't mean the same in Baghdad

Zaha Hadid has been appointed as the architect for the new Iraqi central bank in Baghdad, after the existing building was attacked in June. They could have asked a more reasonable Iraqi architect like, I don't know, me, but they decided to go with the big name. But joking aside, this should be interesting.

Beirut: The City of Long Shadows

Yet another article bemoaning the loss of Beirut’s architectural heritage as a result of the current construction boom. I’ve counted no less than ten articles in the western press this year, and they’ve all covered almost the exact same angle on the subject. Greedy developers, weak state, poor people kicked out of the city. While part of the picture, this narrow angle hardly provides a comprehensive view.

17 Sep 2010

Toby Young V Architecture Ltd: 1- 0

I’m not a fan of Toby Young, but when someone says something sensible I’m willing to listen. Young is planning to start a new ‘free school’ in west London. In a statement that no doubt made most architects choke on their organic Muesli he denied that there’s any link between building design and academic achievement. As to be expected, the comments sparked ‘a backlash’ among architects who ‘lined up to attack Young’. The world would be a much better place if all mobs had the decency of architects to stand in a queue when savaging someone.

15 Sep 2010

CABE and why London needs more skyscrapers

A refined version of my blog calling for the abolition of CABE has been published at Blueprint. Thanks to this and a mention by the architecture and design critic Hugh Pearman, the article has sparked off much needed debate about the subject. I don't want to create the impression that I am singling out CABE for critique, I think the entire planning system in the UK and in London in particular has become a barrier to innovation and experimentation in architecture. I think my article making the case for building more (and taller) skyscrapers in London is a useful reminder of the broader points I made. Read the article published at Culture Wars. Here's a hint of what I think the London skyline should look like:

14 Sep 2010

Inequality, Brazilian slums and The Spirit Level

Read my article on inequality, Brazilian slums and The Spirit Level in World Architecture News. The article was inspired by a photograph of  Paraisópolis favela by young Brazilian photographer Tuca Vieira and the recent debate around The Spirit Level, the book that argues that inequality is the cause of all social problems. The WAN editorial explains the context of the article.

The picture below is not Tuca Vieira's, but another photograph of Paraisópolis.

13 Sep 2010

Why not abolish CABE altogether?

The architectural establishment is experiencing a mild shock to the system, one of its leading lights has publicly broken rank and dared to criticise CABE. In Sunday’s Observer, Rowan Moore the former head of the Architecture Foundation wrote an article entitled ‘Bricks, mortar and mateyness’ accusing CABE of not being critical enough of badly designed buildings. “Too often CABE has found itself in the business of ameliorating bad situations with the result that it has come to look, or be, complicit with them,” said Moore. “Worse, it has looked too matey with the people it is trying to oversee and influence.”

10 Sep 2010

A truth universally ignored: on Lebanon's predicament - Guest blog

I received an interesting comment from a reader in response to Is Hezbollah Lebanon’s NRA? I thought I would share this comment on the blog because it addresses the hypocrisy of our discourse(s) in Lebanon. The comment dwells on the various aspects that manifest our disregard of universalism, shedding light on what is without doubt one of the main barriers towards our social and political development.

It’s very rewarding when what we write resonates with other people, and even more so when this gives us a glimmer of hope that we’re not alone in our discontent.

Fatima writes:

9 Sep 2010

Burning the Quran: A superfluous controversy

The most reasonable comment I came across on the Quran burning controversy was written by Lebanese blogger Mustafa aka Beirut Spring. “The more we talk about and vilify the Koran burners, the more we play into their hands.” Mustafa has managed to recognise a truth that has eluded world leaders and commentators alike. Mustafa went on to say:

“They will burn their Korans, go home, and nobody will die as a result. The Muslim world would have finally grown the thick skin it always needed. We would learn the lesson that most other religions have already learned: Just because a fool somewhere calls your religion evil/ignorant/foolish, it doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Call me naive, but I think most Muslims are as reasonable as Mustafa. The truly offensive suggestion in this debate is that all Muslims are blood-thirsty savages who will fly into a rage and start murdering people when they hear of the Quran burning. And this is precisely what western leaders and journalists are suggesting will happen, hence their eagerness to stop this burning from taking place.

Michel Aoun: A case of meagre ambitions

Michel Aoun’s recent statements have been interpreted by some as an attempt to bring President Michel Suleiman’s term to a premature end as a prelude to replacing him. Aoun’s apparently commented during the Doha conference that he would accept Michel Suleiman as president but only for two years. The FPM has denied the allegations, insisting that Aoun’s statement is part of its parliamentary role in promoting institutional accountability. Is the Reform and Change parliamentary block that represents the FPM trying to live up to its name or is this really a power grab?

According to Ghassan Saoud, a journalist close to the FPM, the answer is neither. Saoud characterised the tension between Suleiman and Aoun as a manifestation of their competition for winning popular Christian support. Saoud suggests that Suleiman has replaced Samir Geagea as the second most popular Christian leader after Aoun, but that he has attained this position by ‘breaking the rules of the game’ and openly competing against Aoun. (Those ‘rules’ suggest that the president should stay above political competition!)

8 Sep 2010

The Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour: Comedy isn't about laughs!

There’s an important field in which Jews have consistently outperformed Arabs. This has both caused me some anxiety and made me wonder about the reasons. I’m talking of course about comedy. (The anxiety bit is an exaggeration). When I think of my comedy favourites, many Jewish names pop out: Groucho Marx, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, to name but a few. By contrast, there are very few Arab comedians that.... actually there are very few Arab comedians full stop. Why is that?

I’m not talking exclusively about stand-up comedy; that would be an unfair comparison because stand-up is in its early days in the Arab world. I’m talking about humour in general in all its forms. Why does it seem like we haven’t produced enough humorists and that the comedy landscape in the Arab world is quite barren?

7 Sep 2010

The Revolution was Televised, hence its downfall

Prime Minister Saad Hariri officially declared The Cedar Revolution over yesterday when he announced that Syria was not responsible for the assassination of his father. This declaration brings to an end a tumultuous era of Lebanon’s history that lasted just over five years. In truth, the ‘revolution’ had lasted for one month exactly, but it took a much longer time for the realisation to sink in. Hariri’s declaration provided the closure that many had been seeking.
"This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has ended," thus spoke Hariri. But a political exoneration is the mirror image of a political accusation. Much as Hariri and his allies were wrong to make the accusation in the first place, he is repeating the mistake now by making this declaration. How can we be expected to believe that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is independent when Hariri has just decided to eliminate one of the suspects on his own initiative?

Is Hezbollah Lebanon’s NRA?

The issue of Hezbollah’s weapons had divided the Lebanese for a long time. In the last few years it has become the central question of Lebanese politics without a shadow of a doubt. Hezbollah’s insistence on maintaining its large arsenal and military capabilities is considered by its political opponents a destabilising factor. They have insisted on implementing the state monopoly on arms as a precondition for the emergence of a fully sovereign state. But such a state monopoly is not universal; America is of course the obvious example among many. Would the American model throw some light on this thorny issue in Lebanese politics?

6 Sep 2010

Fantasy politics in the Arab world

The power of self-delusion in the Arab world is a fascinating phenomenon. Take politics: instead of being honest about our disagreements we like to pretend that they somehow resemble western political conflicts. We get carried away and start using words like ‘leftist’, ‘liberal’, and ‘neo-liberal’ to give some depth to our confused fumbling, like a teenager trying to unhook a bra while desperately trying to come up with excuses. Those political categories are metaphors at best in this part of the world; our politics is driven mainly by narrow pragmatic considerations that have nothing to do with those imported political categories.

So imagine my surprise today when I saw the headline ‘Enlightenment First’ in an editorial by Khaled Saghieh in Al-Akhbar. But what I mistook for an epiphany turned out to be yet another example of political cross-dressing. The gist of the column is that liberals in the Arab world are working in the service of dictatorships under the pretext of promoting reform and modernisation. Using recent examples from Egypt and Tunisia, Saghieh argues that ‘liberals’ are publicly supporting bids by corrupt rulers to stay in power. The threat of political Islam has apparently caused those liberals to ally themselves with dictators, an alliance that they justify through the need for development.

2 Sep 2010

'A Jihad for Love' comes to Beirut

Looks like a minor controversy is brewing in Beirut around the screening of Parvez Sharma's A Jihad for Love. The film explores the relationship between Islam and homosexuality through the eyes of men and women who are both Muslim and gay and are openly defiant about their sexuality and its place within Muslim societies. I saw the film a while back on Channel 4 and was fascinated by it and by the courage of the individuals portrayed in it, many of whom had been beaten, raped and chastised by their communities. Sharma spent six years making the film, getting to know the characters very well and gaining their trust. The diversity of the stories told, covering countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey and France, gives a comprehensive view of the treatment of homosexuality in Islamic societies today.

1 Sep 2010

'General Suleiman': Lebanon’s elusive self-portrait

In Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, the protagonist Galip undertakes a strange journey to find his wife who had mysteriously and inexplicably disappeared from their flat. In keeping with Pamuk’s obsessions, the journey becomes a quest for identity, that of Galip, of Istanbul and of modern Turkey. During his journey, he enters a ‘spider-infested labyrinth of memory’ where the authentic Turkish self is preserved. This labyrinth is an underground museum displaying dusty mannequins rejected by department stores because ‘Turks no longer wanted to be Turks, they wanted to be something else altogether.’