Monday, September 6, 2010


Now that I've graduated from my Master's program at the ANU, I have decided to upgrade my blog.

You can now find my blog at:

Lebanese Chess will remain accessible for archival purposes only.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Museums - an imagined lens into a nation?

It took me several months after my arrival into Oslo to wonder into the city's national galleries and art centres.

Admittedly, I have never been much of a museum buff, but - as a history lover - I admire and respect art's historical significance, particularly in its contribution to the formation of cultural and national identity. But before you read on, I must stress that I am no art expert.

Having already exhausted much of French art - courtesy of my museum-addict French partner - I decided to take a glimpse at Norwegian culture and history through the eyes of its museums and galleries.

What I found surprised me, and I returned home from my cultural outing with a more enchanted image of Norway and Norwegian culture. Expecting a French-style portrayal of a glorious past, a noble aristocracy, and a fairytale image of one's nation, Norwegian art demonstrated a striking humility, of a peasant struggle in the harsh Norwegian terrain, where family bonds were enforced.

Much of the 19th century Norwegian art on display depicted a poor, humble, yet traditional society whose primary challenge was survival in the difficult, but beautiful natural Norwegian landscape. Little there were of grand wars or battles against conquerors, despite the infamous tales many Norwegians will tell you of Danish and Swedish occupation.

I find it incredibly interesting how nations perceive themselves, which is often expressed in a country's celebrated art. How nations perceive themselves and their history, whether it be true or mythical, can certainly influence how such nation-states behave on the international scene.

Let's take the French vs Norwegian national art, for example.

France - through its art - likes to constantly remind the world of its glorious history as a former colonial power, a historic European power, and a great world power. It revels in its pride in an attempt to contend with long-time rivals, such as England, or Spain, or Germany. Indeed, you can't escape the overpowering sense of arrogance when one stumbles on French art. Even its impressionists, albeit 'rebels' of their time, always attempted to display French culture in a fanciful light, such as the colourful depictions of French bourgeois life on the banks of the Seine.

Norway, as I stated, portrays itself in a completely different manner. Its national art seeks to emphasise the humility of Norwegian culture, and play down any notion of a noble aristocracy. Indeed, Norwegian history doesn't partake in the same glory of fellow Europeans. For starters, Norway was not a colonial power, and spent much of the renaissance/modern era under either Danish or Swedish rule. Up until the discovery of its vast oil reserves in the mid-20th century, Norway was still a relatively poor state.

The 19th century was also the century where European nationalisms were beginning to gather momentum, and European powers were digging through its historical archives to construct a national identity. Bind this with the romanticism of the 19th century, and suddenly everyone has a rosey view of themselves.

Whether French or Norwegian art is a genuine reflection of one's culture and history is not the point here, but it's the self-perceptions such arts propagate, its important role in constructing national identity, and its contribution to the subsequent behaviour of these states.

Is France still arrogant, and Norway the humble? Well, the French still like to overemphasise their role in world politics, whereas the Norwegians have spent much of the past few decades constructing an international image of the peacemaker and humanitarian.

Did I need to go into French and Norwegian museums to know this? Most probably not, but it does highlight how powerful and manipulative art can be in constructing a nation's identity and purpose. What I realised about national, celebrated art is that the message being relayed to the viewer is not what truly is France or Norway, but what France or Norway should be, what they represent.

National art is like a distorted mirror that enhances one's rather unrevealing looks. A skewed view of one's self, or an all-out lie, it is nevertheless incredibly effective in reinforcing a believable image that unites all.

Then I think of an artificial post-colonial project like Lebanon, a country severely lacking a national identity, or any real purpose to give its existence any credence. If we were to paint a distorted image of ourselves in an attempt to construct a national identity that binds us all, what would it be? How would we see ourselves? And would it work?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Civil society in Lebanon

Our PRIO (International Peace Research Institute of Oslo) lecture today focused on what role civil society can play in peacebuilding, primarily in post-conflict settings and preventing the recurrence of violence.

Throughout the lecture, I thought strenuously about how to tie civil society to Lebanon's political instability, and what positive role it could play in mitigating the potential/effects of conflict in the country.

I have commented on the emergence of a civil society in Lebanon before, but it is something that has gone largely unnoticed by many analysts, including the researchers at PRIO.

Admittedly, civil society in Lebanon is a development-in-progress, thus difficult to measure in terms of influence. However, the question needs to be asked: can civil society in Lebanon gel the country together and prevent a recurrence of violence?

I have had private discussions with other Lebanese on this issue - many of whom I would consider within this civil society rationale - and most concede that civil society in Lebanon is still too small, too insignificant, and too new to be able to effect change.

Indeed, this may be so, but the workings of a new civil society in a country that previously never had an independent arena for critical voices and opinions would take years to solidify, perhaps decades.

Nevertheless, civil society in Lebanon has propelled since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 and endured four years of heightened political tension and a war with Israel. Whilst local hegemons and regional powers were playing chess with Lebanon's political institutions, social movements emerged as a backlash to the prevailing situation. Such movements promoted the core daily issues confronting Lebanese that simply lost its significance amidst the political wranglings of corrupt warlords, and their grand causes.

Women's rights, GLBT, human rights, and environmental groups, as well as independent academic discourse/citizen journalism, have coalesced in recent years to create an independent space for free critical thought on contemporary Lebanese society and politics.

This development is not intentional, but rather incidental. In Lebanon's case, the emergence of civil society is a consequence of years of frustration at the lack of progress on the political and economic level, and highlights a disconnect between the elites that demand our loyalty and a society moving in a different direction.

Indeed, the majority of Lebanese remain in the grasp of their local chieftain, but even the smallest chip away from this reality is worthy of mention and, more importantly, nurture. Lebanese civil society presents an alternative to the sectarian, tribal, hedonistic culture that has dominated - and destroyed - Lebanon since independence.

Now the question is: how to shift this alternative into the mainstream?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

On Ahmedinijad's UN speech ...

... that caused most Western nations to walk out of the UN chamber in protest.

A transcript of his entire speech can be found here.

The most controversial parts of his speech that caused dismay among Westerners were his criticisms of Israel and the US' involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here's an excerpt:
How can one imagine that the inhuman policies in Palestine may continue; to force the entire population of a country out of their homeland for more than 60 years by resorting to force and coercion; to attack them with all types of arms and even prohibited weapons; to deny them of their legitimate right of self-defense, while much to the chagrin of the international community calling the occupiers as the peacelovers, and portraying the victims as terrorists. How can the crimes of the occupiers against defenseless women and children and destruction of their homes, farms, hospitals and schools be supported unconditionally by certain governments, and at the same time, the oppressed men and women be subject to genocide and heaviest economic blockade being denied of their basic needs, food, water and medicine.

They are not even allowed to rebuild their homes which were destroyed during the 22-day barbaric attacks by the Zionist regime while the winter is approaching. Whereas the aggressors and their supporters deceitfully continue their rhetoric in defense of human rights in order to put others under pressure. It is no longer acceptable that a small minority would dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks, and establish a new form of slavery, and harm the reputation of other nations, even European nations and the U.S., to attain its racist ambitions.
Apart from the last part - which refers to the conspiracy that Jews rule the world - I really don't see the issue here. What has happened/is happening to the Palestinians can't be disputed. I don't think the Palestinian spokespeople, or even Iran's major rival in the region in Saudi Arabia, would argue the case differently.

The German FM labelled Ahmedinijad a disgrace, and that he may be, but what is even more disgraceful is the West's complicity in the suffering of the Palestinian people whilst espousing the grand hypocritical ideals of human rights.

The rhetoric of Ahmedinijad was not unexpected. However, what has differed this speech from previous Ahmedinijad rants at the UN was - as the NY Times noted - the few conciliatory remarks that may pave the way for constructive dialogue with the US. This is what the West should be focusing on, instead of stubbornly walking out of an international forum.

As Mohamad Bazzi highlighted on the Huff Post, Ahmedinijad's rhetoric is aimed at the Arab audience, a means to improve his and Iran's populist stature within the Arab world. Iran has benefited significantly since the Iraq invasion of being the only Islamic power to 'appear' to stand up to Israel and the US, whereas Arab states have grossly failed in this regard.

Having popular Arab support on its side enables Iran to exert greater influence in the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon and Palestine good examples).

Slamming Israel at every opportunity and championing the cause of the Palestinians is the greatest way to mobilise Arab popular support, and Ahmedinijad successfully does it over and over again. A dozen Western delegates may have walked out of the UN chamber, but millions of Arabs will be praising Ahmedinijad tonight.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Netanyahu blames non-existent Lebanese government for rocket attack

A few amateur Palestinians are suspected of launching the two rockets into northern Israel the other day. Nothing out of the ordinary. You know it's an amateur job when no one gets killed.

Hezballah's operations are generally confined to the IDF posts along the border, and usually involve casualties.

The attack prompted a round of Israeli shells hitting an empty field as an expected retaliation. It also drew some warnings and complaints from the corrupt, right-wing hawk Netanyahu, blaming the Lebanese government for this violation.

Mr. Netanyahu, which government are you referring to exactly?

Lebanon has been run by a caretaker government for the past three moments, i.e., no one. Our political oligarchs are still scrambling over which seats to grant to whom.

Netanyahu seemed so determined to blame the non-existent Lebanese government that he even repeatedly rang the residents of South Lebanon to tell them so. The Israeli PM also threatened that he won't hold back the "next time".

But with Obama pressing Israel to quieten its fronts and find a solution so he can concentrate on Afghanistan, I doubt Netanyahu is going to be as trigger-happy as he would like.

Israel's whinge about Lebanese violations of the cease-fire stinks of total hypocrisy. Not many days have passed since the end of the July 2006 war where Israeli fighter jets have not violated Lebanese airspace and taunted residents below.

As for the amateur rocket attack itself, I can't offer any support for this act.

With the South still recovering from the last Israeli blitzkrieg, it's preferable that we don't poke an Israeli cabinet with far-right ministers (if there's one thing to know about far-right politicians, they're capable of anything in any circumstance). The current Israeli government needs to be isolated in its extremism for it to fail politically, and for that to occur, our extremists need to keep quiet.

Another meaningless tit-for-tat, let's leave it at that.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lebanon's political circus

Parliamentary elections were held in June. We are now in September ... still no government.

An excellent editorial (below) in The Daily Star expresses exactly how I, and many Lebanese, feel about the joke that is Lebanon's politics.

Spare us the agony of this freak-show called 'governance' in Beirut

The Daily Star

The ongoing effort to form a government in Lebanon several months after the parliamentary elections is a joke that just isn’t funny anymore. It is no wonder that so many Lebanese citizens have chosen to tune out all talk about the cabinet, rather than continue watching this sad spectacle unfold. After rounds and rounds of negotiations, the clowns who call themselves politicians have gotten themselves nowhere but into a cul de sac. If Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s proposed lineup is rejected, he will bow out of his duties, but the Parliament will re-elect him to repeat the whole process, which will likely end in another failure. This pathetic exercise makes the task of Sisyphus – who in Greek mythology was condemned for eternity to roll a huge bolder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again – look productive.

Both the opposition and the parliamentary majority share responsibility for the current deadlock. Yet neither camp is acknowledging the real reasons that governance in Beirut so often resembles a circus event. It’s not just the clowns, or the politicians, who create a freak-show environment it’s the circus ring itself – or Lebanon’s political system – that encourages politicians to act this way.

The only long-term solution to Lebanon’s perineal political woes is to completely overhaul the system That means drafting a new electoral law that provides a basis for genuine representation in the government and creating mechanisms for actually implementing the long-ignored clauses of the Taif Accord.

To do that we need a government, but not just any old government. Such important decisions can never be taken without unanimity – or at least broad consensus – among Lebanon’s multiple factions.

President Michel Sleiman can spare us the agony of watching this freak-show of attempted governance any longer by proposing a three-month unity cabinet that takes on the challenge of building a functional political system. Such a temporary government could then work on the urgent tasks of implementing the Taif Accord and drafting a new electoral law before being disbanded in preparation for the creation of a new cabinet. After this exercise, any newly created cabinet would be equipped with tools for actually governing the country, as opposed to merely embarrassing its citizens.

The only alternative to this suggestion is to engage in what Albert Einstein’s defined as insanity – to keep doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results.

We know that the current system has produced failure upon failure. It continues to lead us to the brink of conflict, and it has inhibited our development and progress. The Lebanese deserve much better – both from their politicians and the political system in which they operate.

An overhaul of the system is exactly what is required to end 66 years of political farce. But we shouldn't and cannot wait for our politicians, or clowns, to "lead" us into an age of stability and prosperity. My post yesterday pointed to the emergence in recent years of civil society and local movements. Lebanese society is slowly distancing itself from the old, mafioso political elite that has offered nothing to the Lebanese people but rhetoric, economic mismanagement, war and constant instability. The above editorial in a Lebanese paper demonstrates that sections of the public are becoming more and more disenchanted from the wranglings of the political oligarchs, perhaps marking the beginning of a break from our hedonistic culture where warlords and chieftains are idolised to the extreme, in Arabic za'im. To put it simply, no one cares anymore.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Prostitution, gay rights ... a Lebanon beyond tribal politics

A few items I came across that are worth mentioning. While the oligarchs of our country continue to procrastinate over which irrelevant ministry they'll receive (seeing as none of them do any work anyway), some other things are happening in Lebanon ... believe it or not.

The country has boasted about its return on the tourist map, with record numbers holidaying in Lebanon this summer (mainly expats and rich Gulf Arabs).

Beirut's nightlife is getting rave reviews in many circles as things seem to be getting back on track after years of political instability and a war with Israel in 2006. However (there's always an 'however'), with Beirut's emerging night scene comes with it an ugly side, as covered by this insightful article from the AFP ... Lebanon's booming prostitution network.

Tourists flocking to the country, coupled with economic depression and political instability has meant more young girls are being swallowed up in the sex trade, often with no limits and little chance of escape.

In a country that "officially" deems prostitution illegal, and operates a moral police unit, those who enter the sex line of work often have no protection, no rights and are completely ostracised from a wider community that still holds religious values extremely high. In other words, these young girls are often left at the mercy - or lack thereof - of their "pimps". What appeared most disturbing in the AFP article was that, in some cases, prostitution is within the family at the helm of abusive, poor husbands.

But something the article didn't pick up on was that prostitution has always been a feature of Lebanon. During my time in the country, young men my age would often profess their desire to sleep with a "hooker", only because Lebanese girls in the village were out of reach due to traditional values.

Although I was immediately repulsed by this, it seemed quite common for a young man to prove his manhood sexually (albeit with a prostitute) and boast about it, while a young woman would be held in high esteem if she retained her virginity until marriage. A young man to be a virgin, or a young woman not to be a virgin, equally drew the ire from the community.

There's no shortage of gender stereotyping in Lebanon.

It does show, however, that while our political elites fluff about power sharing, social and economic matters on the ground level are largely left untouched. Despite media, NGO and civil society efforts, there is little hope for the many young girls from impoverished families now stuck in the tragic world of forced and abusive prostitution.

Lesbian mag back onboard

But not all is bad news in the evolving Lebanese society. The Arab world's first lesbian magazine, Bekhsoos, is set for a relaunch by the Lebanese lesbian group, Meem, after an initial hiccup - as reported here in the LA Times. It follows the successful emergence of the first Arab gay rights movement, Helem.

The absence of effective governance in the country has prompted citizens to fill the void via a civil society that is now attempting to tackle the tough social issues head on. It's promising to see the emergence of civil movements in Lebanon, whether they're proponents of gay rights, women's rights, pension rights, or simply a counter-voice to the dominant political sectarianism.

There are those in the country - albeit a minority - that are determined to push Lebanon ahead regardless of the political climate. Whether our politicians wake up and jump on board is another matter, but the expansion of our civil society should continue nonetheless. Here's to Bekhsoos !