This is the conclusion of my 2 part conversation with writer and organizer Joey Ayoub. We hope this conversation, which blends the personal & political, inspires discussion on Lebanon, Identity and Diaspora in a collapsing world.
Asia Art Tours: My Lebanese Grandfather was taken by his family from Lebanon to escape the generational poverty that consumed the Daghers as shepards in the mountains behind Beirut. He grew up so poor that many of his most fond Christmas memories were receiving a simple orange in the Cleveland orphanage where he and his brother fended for themselves. Eventually through battles, struggles and volunteering in the US Army to kill the ‘bad whites’ of the Axis Powers he was able to make a life for himself. He was at one point a PhD student in Middle East Studies, which would have allowed him to continue researching in his native Arabic and embrace his ‘in-between’ identity as a member of the Lebanese Diaspora in America. Instead he married my grandmother, a white woman from a good family, who was available to my grandfather and his ‘otherness’ because she was violent and unstable, thus not suitable marriage material for what ‘ acceptable whiteness’ was at that time in America.
My Grandfather, gave up this PhD to become an English Teacher at a community college in order to support his family. At that point it seems like the ‘Arab otherness’ of my family dies out. My mother was never taught Arabic and growing up around Grandpa Joe, he only spoke Arabic in secret (when communicating with his relatives in Ohio… or once for a brief period where he considered marrying a refugee from Lebanon). He wore his English both as a badge of shame and honor, a brand of the sacrifices he had made to belong. And his children and grand children bore both deep appreciation and soulful regret for the choices Joseph Dagher made.
I wanted to ask you, my friend and someone I truly find kindness in because you seem to accept me for all my flaws… am I still Lebanese? If not what am I? And how do people like me, either poke holes in the flag or are the stray yet vital threads of what nations like Lebanon are? At what point of losing language, religion, cultural markers or the recipes of our grandmothers … do we stop becoming Lebanese and become something else?
Joey Ayoub: I really don’t think there is any one way of being Lebanese. In Lebanon, the question of Lebanese-ness is most often used to exclude those deemed ‘the Other’, especially Palestinians and Syrians, rather than appealing to anything that one might call ‘authentic’. There’s very few things that one can say are distinctly ‘Lebanese’ and, deep down, we probably all feel that. Lebanese-ness is the result of traumatising experiences, and as such is not something that holds positive connotations – not enough, in any case, to undo the negative. This isn’t to mean that there is no potential Lebanese-ness that could be construed positively. As far as I’m concerned, the thing with social constructs is that they are, well, socially constructed. The alternative is to believe that there’s some mythical origins to ‘a people’, which Lebanese nationalists would obviously argue for. So if they are socially constructed they can be socially reconstructed, and they will always be socially reconstructed. Every generation sees dozens of such attempts and you see these attempts between generations too. Part of my Lebanese-ness is in stark contrast with that of my parents’. Their inherent ‘Other’-ness, as the generation that lived and witnessed the war, makes my Lebanese-ness very different than theirs. And even within the generations, there are obvious class, regional and sectarian differences. I can automatically recognise ‘myself’ in the people of Mount Lebanon in a way that may take longer for people from the South or the North, for example. That is simply the result of political decisions taken long before I was even born. I can actively struggle against that and urge wider unity, but it doesn’t mean that it comes naturally.
I’m of course channeling Benedict Anderson here and his concept of an imagined community. The imagined community of Lebanon is constantly being redefined and reinterpreted. In its current version, as best as I can tell, it can welcome descendents of those who migrated more easily than, say, a Palestinian who has been living in Lebanon for sixty years. In that regards, your Lebanese-ness wouldn’t be in doubt. You’d just be viewed by most, in my opinion, as ‘of Lebanese origins’, or a part of the diaspora, which is very large as you know. Lebanese-ness is accessible to you; you just need to live in Lebanon for some time, accumulate some experiences, and that’s about it. Personally, I don’t even know if that is something desirable, or even healthy for that matter, but I really never presume to know for others. So in some ways I’d reply to your question with another question: do you think you need to feel Lebanese?
(Founder of Asia Art Tours and his grandfather Joseph)
I’m not exactly sure when your grandfather immigrated to the US, but I’m guessing it was around the time when the divide between Lebanon and Syria was still being created. If you think of the Mahjar poets – of the Lebanese and Syrian diaspora in the US – such as Nasib Arida, Kahlil Gibran, Abd al-Masih Haddad, and Mikhail Naimy, some are Lebanese while others are Syrians, by today’s definitions. Whereas Haddad and Arida’s hometown, Homs, now feels like it is the furthest place imaginable from my home village in Mount Lebanon, that was obviously not true at the time for Gibran and Naimy, who were also from Mount Lebanon. This is true despite the fact that it would have taken longer back then to travel between the two areas than today (a roughly three hours car drive). Today, Homs is further away from Mount Lebanon than it was a hundred years ago. It is further away because the violent temporality imposed upon it by the Assad regime from within Syria and by Lebanese xenophobia from within Lebanon created de-facto borders even when the Syria-Lebanon border was ‘open’. This is the bordering process required by nation states and those within them who divide the land and struggle for capital. The separation between ‘Lebanon’ and ‘Syria’ was of course done by force, with quite a significant percentage of the population suddenly finding themselves having to be called Lebanese overnight. As is typical with the formation of nation states, it was a top-down process, imposed by the bourgeoisie at the time with the support of foreign powers (in this case France). Here I’ll briefly state that I am not a pan-Syrianist, either, and I am definitely not a pan-Arabist, but I do feel an affinity towards that idea of ‘a Lebanon’ or ‘a Syria’ that was created by those who had left them. I feel some connection towards the peoples of the levant that comes relatively easily to me.
I have felt this bond of brotherhood and sisterhood with Syrians and Palestinians outside of Lebanon much more so than within Lebanon. In Lebanon, I am the Lebanese, first and foremost. I am the citizen, and they are the refugees and/or the workers. There is a power dynamic that is imposed between us, whether I want to or not. That gap is further widened by my class and my sect and my region: ‘middle class’, ‘christian’, ‘from Mount Lebanon’. Outside of Lebanon, I am a Lebanese-Palestinian from the Levant, Al-Mashriq or Bilad Al-Sham, and the Levant includes Palestine and Syria and, depending on who you talk to, Jordan. Today it would be more accurate to say Israel/Palestine of course, although that’s a difficult topic best reserved for another time. The Syrians and Palestinians I’ve met in London or Edinburgh or Geneva or Paris share that displacement (or that of their parents) with me, although theirs is usually much more violent. In other words, the circle of experiences is wider, and the three groups are allowed in (this is also true of Jordanians, but there’s a nuance there that I can’t get into here, and which has to do with the Jordanian government’s politics).
So when I think of my Lebanese-ness today, I just know that I am one because I grew up there, and that’s about it. I’m Lebanese because I’ve struggled all my life against Lebanon, against the sectarian rot that’s been murdering my homeland from within for decades, against the petty nationalism that is evoked as a sort of band-aid over that rot. I love Lebanon, I love its land and its mountains, I love the cedars that we’re murdering, I love the sea that we’re murdering, I love the incredible wildlife that we’ve almost completely exterminated. That is what I love. I love Lebanon’s potential. I think our cities are more diverse than we usually admit. We’ve just never had that opportunity, for the most part, to recognise that reality. So, I love that Lebanon, but I do not love the nation state of Lebanon, I have no sympathy for the Lebanese Republic, itself a barely-concealed lie maintained by mass murderers and oligarchs, and I do not believe that those who call themselves Lebanese in modern Lebanon deserve happiness and dignity more than those who do not call themselves Lebanese. To me, if Lebanon is to ever make any sense – to itself, first and foremost – it needs to recognise its residency-based complexities. There are people in Lebanon today that are not considered Lebanese but who are an inherent component of ‘Lebanese’ life. The migrant workers, the refugees, and even some ‘foreign’ middle class residents (a few artists and journalists) who have been in Lebanon for so long that they often know it more than ‘the Lebanese’ who are so obsessed with their regional differences. We scapegoat Syrians and Palestinians and Ethiopians and Sri Lankans in order not to deal with one another. This is what some of my relatives mean when they say they are proud of being Lebanese. They believe Mount Lebanon is Lebanon. They’d include Beirut, but they do not extend that pride to a northerner or a southerner, not in any meaningful way in any case, I can guarantee you that. The only thing that usually united them with other Lebanese is the fact that they’re not Syrians or Palestinians, and so on.
So this is my long way to answer yes, you are Lebanese. I just don’t think Lebanese-ness is developed enough to deserve the beautiful people who want to have that connection with Lebanon. If we ever get beyond our current predicament, if we ever develop an identity that’s more inclusive than our current one(s), we might see that potential Lebanese-ness that I think we all desire. I am absolutely convinced that it can happen. The potential is there, I’ve seen it, but it needs to be allowed to grow, and I do not think this is likely anytime soon.
Asia Art Tours: As Yangyang Cheng so brilliantly puts for Hong Kong Refugees, will those fleeing Lebanon after the explosion, these exiles have to prove their worth to capitalism in order to be accepted as refugee, like what’s happening to Hong Kongers?
- And what does it mean to survive in a system where being accepted as a refugee means you have to be able to thrive in the systems that create these disasters (that create the refugees) in the first place?
Joey Ayoub: They will definitely have to prove their worth to capitalism, and they will likely have to do so for their entire lives. Most people in these situations may never feel like they’re living for themselves anymore, that they have individual aspirations and things to do or achieve or experience while living on this planet, because they will not be given the time to do so. Many will have already internalised this logic by now, having been prepared for it from a young age. We grew up being told to secure a second passport as being just as important, if not more so, than a college degree. So in our case it’s not just being imposed on us in the ‘host country’, but we’re being prepared for it our entire lives. It’s what I’ve come to understand more recently. My years in Europe (2015-) were as close to pre-destined as it gets. This can leave you feeling disarmed, vulnerable, because you realise you’ve had little choices in your own life, that you’re merely the afterthought of UK or EU or Swiss politicians because, ultimately, you do not have the required papers to even have an opinion that they have to be concerned about, if only temporarily and barely. So what is to be done in this situation? Sometimes I have the energy to fight it, and sometimes I don’t. The latter basically means that I often give up, because I have no other choice.
I love Lebanon, I love its land and its mountains, I love the cedars that we’re murdering, I love the sea that we’re murdering, I love the incredible wildlife that we’ve almost completely exterminated. . . But I do not love the nation state of Lebanon, I have no sympathy for the Lebanese Republic, itself a barely-concealed lie maintained by mass murderers and oligarchs, and I do not believe that those who call themselves Lebanese in modern Lebanon deserve happiness and dignity more than those who do not call themselves Lebanese.
As to your second question, I think this is very well put, and in some ways most people alive today live some version of that. It’s why it’s so disheartening to see residents of a place react so negatively to refugees coming to their ‘imagined community’ – Europe or the USA, for example, or Lebanon for that matter as if they or their kids or grandkids will never find themselves in similar positions one day. In Lebanon, we see former refugees and/or their children and grandchildren reject Syrian refugees. They push them out in order to push away the possibility of that ever happening to them (again). Do you see what I mean? The more ‘the hosts’ recognise the reality of ‘the refugees’, the more the differences between the two, already fragile, risk becoming irrelevant. ‘The refugees’ must remain within that category for whoever doing the Othering to remain comfortable enough to ignore the world. I’m channeling both James Baldwin and Zygmunt Bauman here. Baldwin would say that the oppressed knows the oppressors better than the oppressors know the oppressed, because the oppressed are forced their entire lives to be aware of the oppressors while the oppressors rarely need to know anything. It’s like that ‘paradoxical’ fact, that it’s expensive to be poor, more expensive than being rich. It’s more knowledge-demanding to be the oppressed, much more so than being the oppressors. The same goes for those who live in relatively privileged ‘host’ communities. There are exceptions here, such as the Greeks of Lesbos, already dealing with an economic crisis, and who were abandoned by the EU to ‘deal’ with even more desperate refugees and migrants. It’s never a ‘them’ versus an ‘us’, but that’s the driving force of today’s world politics. Those Greeks can be seduced by pan-European nationalism to exclude ‘the refugees’ and remain ‘the hosts’, but this requires the Europeans to remember to pander to the Greeks, and they don’t always bother to do so.
To the above, you can add Bauman’s notions of a precariat and ‘liquid fear’ to that. We are all, potentially, the precariat. The more years pass by, the more I think the line between capital and labor will be blurred, especially if the current digitisation trends continue [who’s doing the labor on Google and Facebook, where it’s your data that is the product sold to the clients, the advertisers?] Mix that in with the very predictable upcoming crises that will come from our addiction to fossil fuel and mass-produced animal agriculture and one can easily conclude that we all risk precariat status. With that knowledge, it is difficult to believe that 2020 will be an exceptionally bad year in the coming decade, quite the contrary. I think we need to be honest to ourselves and understand that the coming decade will likely be very difficult, as long as the current trends continue. So if we’re all at risk of becoming precariat, what does that leave those with so much capital? In my view, they risk turning into ‘moral monsters’, to use James Baldwin again, a term he used to describe the people who are invested in their own whiteness. The rich spend so much capital to avoid dealing with the reality of the world that their capital has created. They don’t want to drown with the rest of us.
The language here is accidentally revealing too. Liquid fear. Our fear is liquid because our reality, in a world where multinational corporations can have more power than nation states, where we can’t rely on even the few months left in 2020, let alone 2021, or 2030 and 2040, is ever-changing. It is liquid because many are losing the certainty they once had, post-WWII, that they won’t have to deal with what most humans have had to deal with. But isn’t it also liquid because those who are fleeing their homes are forced to take the sea as it is less treacherous than a land full of humans and their borders? Their fear is literally liquid, not just metaphorically. They fear the sea, and the land is deadlier. And isn’t it also liquid because global warming is causing rising sea levels which is making all of these even worse? God, or whatever she’s called, sure loves irony.
Asia Art Tours: The title of this exchange is Lebanon as a warning from the future? What is the warning? And should we be trying to stop what’s about to come for coming to pass or is it too late? If so should we spend our time preparing?
Joey Ayoub: Well, if we wish to be more accurate about this we’d say that every place is a warning from the future because the future doesn’t exist yet. It just so happens that tiny Lebanon got its fair share of ‘the future’ in a very short period of time, so it’s a ‘convenient’ case study. Now, the question is will those outside of Lebanon learn from its experience, or from that of Hong Kong, Belarus, Chile, BLM and so on? Will the Lebanese learn from the Syrians, the Belarusians from Hongkongers, the Chileans from the Thai? I don’t know. There’s some indications that there’s greater awareness than there previously was, yes, but perhaps it will take more time for us to ‘see’ the results of the waves of uprisings of 2019 and 2020.
The language here is accidentally revealing too. Liquid fear. . . Isn’t it also liquid because those who are fleeing their homes are forced to take the sea as it is less treacherous than a land full of humans and their borders? Their fear is literally liquid, not just metaphorically. They fear the sea, and the land is deadlier. And isn’t it also liquid because global warming is causing rising sea levels which is making all of these even worse? God, or whatever she’s called, sure loves irony.
As for whether it’s too late, I think this again goes back to the notion that the future doesn’t exist yet. It’s currently being created with today’s facts, so our concern should be about changing those facts for a different future. It’s depressingly straightforward, which leaves our failures so painful to comprehend. But yes, we should spend our time preparing. We shouldn’t just be ‘ready’ for the apocalypse (as much as is actually possible), which means building community resilience, but we should make abolition more likely today. We should create the facts on the ground that will make abolition more likely. The latter is done by actively weakening the more extremist factions of the right while also weakening the ‘moderate’ beliefs that allow such extremes to exist in the first place, namely xenophobia, nationalism, racism, misogyny, transphobia and so on, those components of modern societies that are still considered legitimate and acceptable as long as they’re coated in ‘respectable’ language (and not even always). I guess this goes back to what I replied above. I want to prevent the apocalypse and I want abolition, but the two are not necessarily related. We might have some form of abolition without preventing the (climate) apocalypse, if we assume that abolition only involves the human species. If abolition includes what we call the natural world, there could be some hope of achieving both abolition and a sustainable future.
But you know, Lebanon isn’t the only ‘warning for the future’. The US is one as well. The arrogant empire that thought it defeated history just because the other arrogant empire lost, instead of seeing that loss as the warning that it was. This is the problem with simplistic binaries. The US is still recovering from the most absurd elements of the cold war today because Americans are still largely committed to the belief that they ‘won’, rather than trying to understand why the Soviets ‘lost’. The USSR had turned into a monstrosity under Stalin, much worse than before, largely obscuring the more interesting and potentially positive experiments, and it never properly recovered from the 40s and 50s. How does a mighty empire collapse? Why do they always collapse? It’s been barely 30 years and already this feels like asking a question about the distant past when it is in fact a question of the present. It is the same question about major powers today, from Turkey to China to Russia. So if the US is a warning from the future, where does BLM fit into the present? I’m asking you this because you’re an American, but also because I know you’re very aware of the cult of whiteness and how it also affects those that are ‘white passing’.
Asia Art Tours: Both you and I have spoken to countless activists who’ve been crushed for listening to the ‘warning’ and trying to stop it from coming to pass. Lately for Lebanon when we spoke you said you had given away literally all your money. As things get worse globally, will you continue to make yourself vulnerable? How do we remain generous and giving, in a time where survival seems more and more at risk?
Joey Ayoub: That’s such a great question that couldn’t be more timely. Very shortly after I said that I started working on a financial plan to have some savings on me because I’m not just directly responsible for myself but also for my partner, our pet, some members of my family and a few friends. So let me put it this way. I believe that my need to feel safe is justified. It isn’t just justified because I’ve gone through difficult things like most people who live(d) in Lebanon – albeit to various extents – but as a matter of principle. I believe that no human should feel unsafe, with the only exception being those humans who are engaged in actively making others unsafe and when making those humans feel unsafe is the only way to fight back. That’s a very specific scenario, so the general principle stands.
This is something that I didn’t always actively believe. In fact, and perhaps paradoxically, the more vulnerable my surroundings were, the less vulnerable I felt. Many people speak about that, about ‘missing’ the regularity of the war in Lebanon for example, because at least they knew that when the bombings stopped, they probably won’t start again until the next day. It’s how I felt about the global pandemic. I was worried for people, but I was less afraid of the irregularity of the pandemic because I think I was already ‘there’. I was relatively ‘okay’ with changing my daily habits to prevent the spread of the virus. That’s both a privilege and a curse, but let’s put that aside for another time.
One thing I think most people still don’t understand, however, is that this feeling is always only temporary. Soon enough, one falls back into the same kind of insecurities about life and the future. This is why I insist so much on talking about time and not just space. It’s not so much whether I can continue making myself vulnerable, but for how long? If I have an illness to worry about, I obviously should try and reduce the risks. Those risks will also depend on where I live and what my access to capital is like. If I live in a country with universal healthcare and decent services, I may take ‘more risks’ by, for example, sending a friend some money if they need it. If I have to prioritise saving every penny because there is no universal healthcare, I’d have to make different calculations. My willingness to be vulnerable would thus be dependent on whatever needs to be done in a particular situation. This actually reminds me of what Sho Konishi told you, about the importance of ‘doing seemingly self-contradictory practices’ to allow you to ‘create and belong to another temporality’. I very much agree with this, and it is a conclusion I’ve reached the hard way. So anyway, I had given away all my money because I knew that I could take that risk. I was already in Switzerland, with university funding on its way. My partner’s salary was keeping us afloat and whatever I had left – not much, to be totally honest – would’ve made a real difference to a number of people, so my calculation was rather straightforward. I try and reduce other people’s risks even if ‘at my own expense’ but within a certain limit, and that limit in turn depends on how at-risk I am. It’s not exactly a perfect system, but it does the job for now.
As for how to remain generous and giving in a time of increasing risks, my answer is to act the way I act with my close friends. As a general rule, whoever is more financially comfortable makes the effort to help the others. If I have a salary and my friend doesn’t, I’m paying for lunch. More than that, it really depends on each person and their circumstances. What I would say to people is that it’s not your fault for being born in capitalism, but it doesn’t mean we have no moral responsibilities. Create seemingly self-contradictory practices to counter this world’s problems, put your heart into doing this, fail a lot of times, and always try and be kind to yourself and others. This requires doing two things at the same time, to be critical while also giving yourself some time to breathe and recover.
What I would say to people is that it’s not your fault for being born in capitalism, but it doesn’t mean we have no moral responsibilities. Create seemingly self-contradictory practices to counter this world’s problems, put your heart into doing this, fail a lot of times, and always try and be kind to yourself and others. This requires doing two things at the same time, to be critical while also giving yourself some time to breathe and recover.
Read part 1 of our interview with Joey here.