The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember collective aspects of my youth: my mother’s church; street block parties; agricultural fairs; extremely local media.
I recall collective aspects of my life in New York: block associations; tenants’ rights groups; neighbors; local printers; mom-and-pop stores.
Just to mention a few.
I have watched much of this disappear.
I imagined, like everyone, that this was “progress”.
I believed, like most, that this was “universal”.
Here in Lebanon is a constant reminder of what I used to know.
And how we used to live.
For example, experiencing the joy of eating a fruit that you haven’t had since the last time it was in season.
When I was a kid, I recall when fall meant going to the apple farm.
Where there were multiple varieties of apple to choose from.
I imagine there is a suburban development there now.
In the mountains of Lebanon there are farmers at work ripping out their local varietals.
To replace them with the ubiquitous Granny Smith.
When I was in school learning graphic design, I recall collaborating with quite local printers.
At their shops on the lower westside.
Now there’s a Kinko’s.
Now they’re in Macao.
There are men here in Lebanon still working printing presses and setting metal type by hand.
There are men who still calligraphy banners with brush and ink.
There are women still embroidering traditional dress.
There are men who still work manually binding books.
I bring these up as examples of valid traditions of craft.
I don’t mean to propose we all return to age-old means of communicating.
Although sometimes I feel it might not be a bad idea.
I would often speak of this to my students.
I have tried to make them aware of all that they have and have not yet lost.
Instead of thinking things are so much better somewhere else.
Along these lines, I have had students document the local craft realm.
By craft, I’m not talking about the individualized work of Etsy-ists.
I’m not talking about the individualized pre-fab craft of Michaels frequenters.
Let’s be honest.
Outlets like Michaels have basically just removed the last step of the assembly line, and foisted it on the buyer.
Who pays extra to save a businessman somewhere overseas a production step.
There is often zero to little creativity involved.
I’m also not talking about bourgeoisified price-inflated “one-of-a-kindisms”.
You know, upscale artistes catering to a select clientele.
Perhaps you’ve seen the PBS documentary on the Shakers.
And perhaps you’ve seen Oprah Winfrey bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars for the output of a dying if not dead community.
This is not what I’m talking about.
This is obscene if you think about it for two seconds.
Perhaps you’ve followed the discussion concerning the “former American Folk Art Museum building”.
This is how it is described, verbatim.
You know, by people who are more concerned with the architectural shell, as opposed to the popular arts contained within, now warehoused rather inconspicuously near Lincoln Center.
Which is about as good a summing up of this entire subject as any I could possibly imagine.
I’m talking about something else.
I’m talking about collaborative craft integrated into a living community.
Such as my grandmother on my mother’s side, and her beautiful quilts.
Or the craftspeople uncovered by my students.
A sample of what they produce includes: Fer fourgé; bellworks; jezzine cutlery; truck framing/decorating; brass/copper/silverworks; pottery; glassblowing; tileworks; furniture making; chair caining; inlaid woodwork; musical instruments (oud, derbakkeh, nay); carpet making/weaving; stitching/sewing; lacemaking; cushions/pillows/soft furniture; calligraphy; letterpress; bookbinding; soapmaking; yarn spinning/wool production; oil pressing; local food production; candlemaking; etc.
Certainly not thriving.
Yet not quite dead yet.
Their interviews with such craftspeople are often heartbreaking.
Such artisans continue despite the odds stacked against them.
Potters, for example, must charge a hefty tax on their work.
This is due to the fact that the government considers their output to fit under the category of “archeological relics”.
Like those dug up by the bulldozers downtown which no one cares about either.
One potter logically concluded he might as well sell his wares “pre-broken”.
In order to fit better their categorization.
I have had students visit with Bedouin in the Bekaa Valley.
The Bedouin eke out a living to this day, herding goats and producing milk.
They have been made sedentary due to rather new and uncrossable borders.
They are a “stateless” people.
I have had students produce workshops in the Palestinian camps.
The Palestinians have been made migratory due to occupations, extirpations, and expulsions.
They are a “landless” people.
I have had student advisees whose work brings them in contact with those living in informal settlements.
Or those who were displaced by the destruction of their towns in the south.
Or those who are made refugees due to war in neighboring countries.
I have had students surprised to find me in my neighborhood among friends who happen to be Syrian workers.
The Syrians are migrant due to a depraved economy and a state of war.
Which, incidentally, was being waged against them long before this current mediated version started up almost three years ago.
They are deprived locally of anything that might confer a sense of dignity or humanity.
They find shelter in the nooks and crannies of Lebanese infrastructure.
They are a “homeless” people.
There are 7,000 NGOs currently working away in Lebanon.
That’s one for every 500 people.
The majority are foreign.
We joke that they should just dole out their money directly to the population.
To spare us the pain of listening to their “empowerment” nonsense.
And instead of instituting their great schemes of humanitarian imperialism.
But this is an entirely different subject.
The point I wish to make is that they treat those on the down and out as having no agency.
Waiting for vague handouts from salvationist foreigners.
Quite similar to our adoptions, really.
In about a million ways.
I recall attending a “soirée” of “artists” after the July 2006 War.
I ran into a woman, Dutch, who had set up an NGO.
She was nothing if not ebulliant about her new project.
Her goal was to bring computers to the children in the south.
Idiotic capitalists with Wired magazine next to their toilet love the idea of bringing computers to children.
I stared at her in disbelief.
I said: “Well, you might want to work first on providing the house with the wall that would give you a socket to actually be able to plug the computer into first.”
“And then you might want to rebuild the power plant to start up the energy flow so you can work on the rationing of electricity again such that it stays on for more than three hours a day every third day.”
“And you might want to check your odious assumption that you have so much to teach, and nothing at all to learn.”
I’m just saying.
When we set up our artists’ collective here, I was handed a set of bylaws by my lawyer.
It was full of stipulations concerning hierarchy, voting, office holding, quorum, and fifty-percent-plus-one majority.
All of the things which traditionally undo such organizations.
All of the things which are alien to much of how the culture works here.
I said I wanted to write bylaws and charter that better reflected our way of thinking.
He told me to go ahead and try, but the government might not approve it.
It took all of a year and a half, and much in the way of debate, legally speaking.
By the time we were done, my lawyer referred to me as “Mr. Consensus”.
And stated that our work set a precedent.
Which I take as a badge of honor.
Our government approval came within three months.
When it can often take upward of a year or more.
We are proud of our work, but at the same time a bit distressed.
The act of spelling out ways of acting communally only point out how far we are from such roots.
Especially when most organizations I work with, and most people I prefer to be in contact with, just assume such “rules for living” to be the given.
There is no need to speak of such rules, they just are.
It is for this reason that the “stateless”, “landless”, and “homeless” are read as “helpless”.
Due to a primary flawed understanding of those who “help”.
The agency of those denied existence is, quite on the contrary, a powerful force.
There are informal networks, means of communication, delivery systems, all outside of any institutional control.
Which goes far to explain their being slated for destruction.
The formalization of the informal is the first step.
I am no longer at ease with this individualizing mentality.
It sets out to undermine equivalence of voices; the self-sustaining nature of such networks.
It avoids actually empowering people to focus on making them dependent in a variety of ways.
This is what I’ve learned.
For these networks to work, communication need take place.
And this communication need start from a position of equality; an even playing field.
It need not have anything to do with technology.
There are basically two kinds of communication.
One assumes an eventual return to a communal norm, and so allows for emotion; expression; commotion.
The other assumes an individual defensive posture, and so devolves into what is referred to as “chaos”; “road rage”; “random violence”.
The former speaks in the vernacular and the popular, for ease of understanding.
The latter forces extreme strictures on communication, tone, voice, and way of speaking; it seeks to hide meaning.
The first focuses on original Voice.
The second focuses on affected voice.
I used to worry at the sound of street fights in my neighborhood.
Until I learned the grammar of it all.
And the public nature of it.
And my role therein.
So it is extremely disturbing to be told online or back in the States: “Mind your tone.”
I am no longer able to play by these rules designed to destroy.
I am no longer able to contemplate myself as an “individual”.
There is no such thing as a “bystander”; “observer”; “audience member”.
I don’t know how else to explain it.
I think this is why Lebanon resonates so much.
This despite the fact that the country has always been a neo-liberal nightmare of a failed nation-state since the very moment it was carved out of a colonialist’s map.
This incentive to favor affectation and distance occurs in places where certain economic and political ways of thinking have established a stronghold.
It is not “of” people, but is imposed upon them.
Somehow those in this region manage to resist this.
Those who reject others as “stateless”, “landless”, and “homeless” are, in fact, the ones removed from their place.
They just haven’t been painfully made aware of that yet.
Because in the end, those whose lives have been historically tied to the land will be those who remain.
Of this I’m sure.
This goes far to explain their steadfastness; their patience in the face of adversity.
It should be noted that I am no longer teaching the above-mentioned students.
That particular university has very specific rules of how we are to interact with “community”.
Showing students something outside of their lived Bubble is forbidden.
Reducing the distance between them and those around them is not allowed.
I found this out the hard way.
After eight years of my life there.
And so be it.
A life’s lesson has been learned.
Years of experience in the field as it were have been gained.
A sense of drawing closer to a goal has been obtained.
I am painfully aware now that something quite essential to our existence has been lost.
This is our given lot.
This is our current plight.
And still it is not too late.
Image: Umm ‘Ali showing us her work. | Date: May, 2009 | Place: Haush-Sneid, Beqaa Valley | Camera: Sony “CyberShot” DSC-TX1; Carl Zeiss lens | Caption: Watching the women work together to produce these cushions covers and floor mats is to witness a true collective in action, as tasks divvy up without anyone needing to state what they are; just like my Nonnie’s quilting bees.