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 commenting to a friend on the Lower East Side that the former Skid Row was completely unrecognizable.
She replied: “Yes, but, the new buildings going up have ten percent of their apartments devoted to lower-income residents.”
I said: “As opposed to the one-hundred percent previously.”
She stated: “Well, you have to think of the landlords.”
I replied: “No. You don’t.”
In the shiny Jetsonian Metropolis, there is no room for anything, shall we say, askew, in terms of aberrations concerning mental health.
What was a shared responsibility for relieving others of their vagaries of reason has been pawned off to private “professionals”.
Who now work on the nuclear-familial, if not individual level.
There are books a shelf wide that list out our possible diagnoses.
With the current trend being pharmaceutical “cures”.
Which seems rather scattershot, to be certain.
With their dubious focus on symptoms instead of illness.
I’m certainly not the first one to discuss this.
In any event, we go with the myth we are self-sufficient units.
Then realize this is insufficient.
We retreat to self-serving corners of online discussion boards and self-determined “self-help” groups to talk about ourselves with others talking about themselves in a battlefield of dueling narratives.
We devolve into a competition for what should be, in fact, much-deserved mutual attention.
We might think that we are part of a “community”.
Until the historic voice of that group gets, well, deleted.
In the name of “support” and “solace”.
A consolation non-forthcoming.
Or the “community” splits into an infinity of “sub-groupings”.
We might think we are empowering such a community by focusing on it to the exclusion of other communities.
In the name of “solidarity” and “power”.
Such that we turn into those who were the cause of our own exclusion.
Such “community” defines itself in self-imposed categorical breakdowns of identity markers that reflect a certain divide-and-conquer strategy from the outside, not inherent to ourselves.
If we think about it, this pretty much defines us as “self-colonizing”.
Which in and of itself reflects a System that wishes us only ill will.
To say the very minimal least.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not spare myself here.
I’ve done–and do–the same.
And there’s not much choice besides.
It is a hegemonic and oppressive environment.
One that requires ten times the energy to go up against it.
There are, after all, Great Rewards™ for giving in to its pressures.
Unfortunately, these are rather short-term.
I think we need stop and think what it means to label someone.
Most of the time this is not a term of endearment.
And no one was spared, historically speaking, in places that refer to themselves as “mosaics” and “rainbows” and “melting pots”, not even those now considered categorically speaking “white”.
We imagine that we have agency when we proclaim the category ourselves.
This is called “reclaiming” identity, or “defusing” an epithet.
I used to agree with this.
I used to think there was a usefulness in identity politics.
An awakening of Voice.
Except this is like a man in an electric chair discussing how he is “empowered” for holding the switch that controls his very demise.
The issue is one of “leaning” in a reductive or expansive direction.
We can either reinforce the lines that divide us, or else erase them.
Lebanon stands as the poster child for everything that is wrong with colonialism, post-colonialism, neo-liberalism, and most any other divisive “ism” you can imagine.
A friend in the States once said to me: “America is going down the toilet!”
I replied: “Well, I’m in the sewer, so I can tell you where you are going to end up!”
I’m simply remarking that perhaps the problem lies somehow with the diminishment of what we might call communal caring.
Which was previously unstated; a given.
I’m trying to say that perhaps the problem is not of the individual, but of the society which has individualized her for very particular economic and political reasons.
None of which has her well-being in mind.
Physical, psychological, or spiritual.
The current failed societal experiments called nation-states have had their run.
The failure of dubious concepts such as European-style “secularism”, with its official and national churches as well as church-sanctioned monarchies, is a given.
In constrast to such hypocrisy, thinking about religion in Lebanon is overt; a constant; a function of this place.
I remember when I was forced to think about claiming a religious sect.
The so-called Lebanese government recognizes 18 of them.
To wit: Alawite, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Copt, Druze, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Isma‘ili, Judaism, Latin Catholic, Maronite, Protestant, Sunni, Shi‘i, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox.
We have the French to thank for this mess.
Divide and conquer.
One’s sect is encoded into the national ID card.
My lawyer working on my nationality case was instrumental in allowing for a process in which all sectarian references are removed from one’s government records.
She advised me to not go down this path.
Since there is no such thing as “civil law”.
Friends have advised me to choose a sect based on what it “affords” economically and politically speaking.
This is ridiculously offensive if given any thought whatsoever.
I know people who have “converted” in order to have an easier divorce.
I know women who have “converted” in order to be able to inherit property.
I know people who have “converted” to their spouse’s religion in order to ease their children’s lives.
So much treatment of symptoms without getting to the actual illness.
The irony is that my parents could not adopt in the United States for being seen as a “mixed” marriage, in terms of religion.
Irony is perhaps not the correct word.
And so America’s own sectarianism, now formalized, was responsible for my adoption from the Land of Sectarianism.
By “formalized” I mean to say that no one balks in the United States at discussing, say, the “Catholic vote”, or the “Bible Belt”, or of making offensive references to New York City, or the “Muslim issue”.
The supreme irony perhaps was a sheikh in this land of shattered beliefs stating to me that one does not convert to a sect, but to a faith, and that the faiths themselves expand into each other.
I very much appreciated his focus on the expansive ideal, and not a reductive splintering.
I have friends who joke that in my choice I’ve of course gone for the low end of the religious totem pole, in terms of local political power and social status.
I have friends who envy the fact that I have a choice in the matter.
Whereas they have spent lifetimes trying to escape from their sect’s constriction, in terms of life in Lebanon.
I had colleagues who radically altered their perception of me once they found out about my decision.
I remember an adoptive parent accusing me of being a “religious extremist”.
Which is odd when it was Bad Faith that gave us adoption in the first place.
And which is hypocritical given his religious advocacy of adoption as a ritual of his own faith.
The further reduction of faith is, of course, this ignoble focus on one’s own personal salvation at the expense of others.
I remember driving with my mother in New Mexico and seeing a bumper sticker that read: “If the car is empty, then I’ve been Raptured.”
I can’t imagine a faith that exults in the dismissal of others to my own religious “benefit”.
Not to mention the arrogance of such a presumption.
Unfortunately in Lebanon every aspect of one’s life is governed by the mental calculations of sect.
Especially if one does not have the luxury and privilege to remove oneself from this fray.
I recall veiled students crying in my office because they didn’t understand why advertising agencies would not hire them.
I did not have the heart to explain to them.
I remember bringing this up at a faculty meeting once.
I suggested we should enforce a rule of non-discrimination in terms of firms who hire our students, or use them as interns.
I was quickly informed that this is “the way it has always been”.
I just listened in stunned disbelief.
Systems of power aim to perpetuate themselves.
All the same, I have fallen into this trap on occasion.
Coming to the defense of my “sect” in terms that I vow not to use.
As in: “I am [fill in name of sect].”
In “speaking to power”, in standing up for one’s “group”, we in fact set in motion the process of our own termination.
No one is concerned with such exceptions to the rule.
They prove nothing except our capacity to knee-jerk in defensive reaction.
When what is required is a pro-active offense.
The reductive will always win out over the expansive.
This directly produces the Fear that changes the landscape in every place I’ve ever lived.
People retreat emotionally into themselves.
And they retreat physically into their enclaves.
For a greater sense of “security”.
Eyeing each other once again with distrust and suspicion.
To eventually suffer alone.
This is a diversion.
And a divisive tactic.
And the only answer is to travel in the exact opposite direction.
Image: Christmas in Beirut | Date: December, 2012 | Place: Downtown Beirut | Camera: Sony “CyberShot” DSC-TX1; Carl Zeiss lens | Caption: A Christmas tree is dwarfed by the monstrous Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut. The mosque, built by a Saudi architectural firm, is a “copy” of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Instanbul. Given its location at Martyr’s Square–which commemorates those resisting the Ottoman Empire–one really has to question the decision making process here, which is much more reflective of establishing a supreme “footprint”, based on political machinations and not faith. All religious edifices in Lebanon reflect their communal nature, meaning, they are small, numerous, and are organic to an immediate neighborhood. Even structures that seem singular–such as the Maghen Avraham Synagogue currently being rebuilt downtown–are still rather humble structures, comparatively speaking, and were always “one of many” (there were over a dozen synagogues in Beirut alone).