Published on Friday, February 25, 2005 by

Memorial for Lebanon’s Assassinated Prime Minister, Rafiq Al-Hariri, February 2005. (By st1ke – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Fables and the fabulous break into reality with slow or sudden surprise, refracting normality into something marvelous or terrifying: the red shoes that won’t stop dancing, animals dispensing sage advice, or a magical rooster that scratches the earth precisely where a great treasure is hidden. Fables often begin with cruelty, suffering, and terror only to end on a note of completion or deliverance. Just-so stories tell us life can be so just: the orphan actually has parents, the scullery maid descends from royalty, and the lost children eventually find their way home.

Fables exercise an enduring attraction and power not because they are fabulous but because they are rooted in mundane realities and express our most common hopes and fears. Along the seam of the typical and the everyday, amid the weeds beside the road, we spot something shiny, colorful, and amazing that was not there yesterday. Or was it, but we never noticed? Fables explore potentialities and question assumptions. They play with established notions of social roles, identities, institutions, and hierarchies by illuminating zones of interstitiality, those ever-present yet seldom acknowledged in-between spaces in every social and political structure. Fables deal with the emergent, the dynamic, and the transitional; they feature shape-shifting entities that are no longer what they were, nor yet what they might become. Where social structures and political hierarchies have been fragmented by war, violence, colonization, and repression, the interstitial realm can become a deep, dark wood. In such settings, fables often assume a special form: the conspiracy theory.

A Fabulous Week

Having lived in Lebanon from 1993-1998, last week’s news from Beirut held my attention and stirred my imagination with all the power of a captivating fable. Shock and horror at the killing of Rafiq Hariri and a dozen others gave way to enchantment as I watched thousands of Lebanese from nearly every point on the country’s diverse religious and political spectrum spilling out into the streets, carrying immense banners that posed questions and made demands that few dared voice publicly a decade ago. Calls for independence, human rights, and a Lebanon free of Syrian political, economic, and military domination seemed fabulous and exciting – yet perhaps too good to be true. But ascertaining the truth of what really happened in Lebanon, whether a day or a decade ago, is no mean feat. Fabulous tales abound, and not all of them are of Lebanese derivation.

Of all of the states of the Middle East, Lebanon is the most intriguing. Its history, politics, and human geography resist easy categorizations, while its diversity and ongoing crossing and questioning of boundaries attract projections of identities from near and far. Neither truly a nation nor currently a state, Lebanon is a liminal zone par excellence, a country that never fails to violate categories: Western or Arab? Christian or Muslim? Confessional or cosmopolitan? Feudal or free? Democracy or dictatorship? And as any student of folklore knows, liminality, interstitiality and the fabulous go together.

Both Hariri’s assassination and the emergence of popular demonstrations calling for Syria’s departure from Lebanon elicited the exact same question: “Who benefits?” Depending on how one answers the first question, one will get the answer one expects or wishes to hear to the second one. Hariri was killed by the Syrians, or Syrian agents, so the demonstrations will bring an end to Syrian hegemony and the dawn of a longed-for era of peace, independence and democracy in a sovereign Lebanon. Or, Hariri was killed by Israeli or US agents, so those who are demonstrating now are not exercising their own political will and agency, but rather, are simply following a script written in Washington and Tel Aviv that is meant to hasten the next stage of US imperialism in the region: regime change in Damascus.

In addition to demonstrating the standard features of the Lebanese fable form known as “khuyuut al-mu’amarat” (“the threads of the plots”), in which any anomalous or ambiguous elements – of which there are many now in Lebanon, and throughout the region — are tied up neatly or explained away knowingly, both sets of answers also include implicit recountings of a new and imported imaginative form: fables of democracy.

Indeed, such fables now dominate daily news reports about the Middle East in the mainstream US media. President Bush’s recent speech before NATO in Brussels, like his inauguration and State of the Union speeches, partook of the fabulous: freedom and democracy were the leit motifs, and the characters and settings of the tales he related were, as often as not, drawn from an imagined version of the Arab world, where a new and powerful magical phenomenon has suddenly emerged: elections.

Like the wondrous transformations of straw into gold or ducks into swans, aggression, invasion, and occupation have given way effortlessly to elections and the birth of a new democratic order in Iraq. Magically, the election of a moderate politician who prefers tailored suits over khaki uniforms heralds the dawn of peace and security in Palestine. Any questions of compliance with international law or ongoing violations of human rights are now beside the point. A magic wand has made them disappear.

And now, a third sign (fabulous events always happen in threes) appears in the form of mass demonstrations on the streets of Beirut, where Muslims and Christians, Left and Right, march shoulder to shoulder calling for the end of Syrian occupation and surrogate rule by repressive and corrupt Lebanese puppets. For America’s neoconservatives and their friends, the only explanation for Beirut’s sudden demonstrations is that the Lebanese have been inspired – nay, enchanted — by Iraqi and Palestinian elections and President Bush’s fiery rhetoric about freedom. The banners and chants of Beirut are widely interpreted as indigenous validations of the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy and a sign that a restructuring of the entire region is not only possible, but at hand.

Whether or not most of the demonstrators in Beirut believe this fable seems to matter little in Washington, where careful attention to and serious consideration of the words and wishes of Arabs and Muslims has rarely been high on Bush’s agenda. But attention to the stories of those who are actually taking to the streets of Beirut now reveals all sorts of fabulous elements and developments. Many are troubling, but some are truly marvelous.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

New renditions of the perennially popular Lebanese fable of Harb al-aakhireen `ala arDinaa (“the war of the others on our soil”) are much in evidence now in Beirut, as well as on Listservs frequented by Lebanese in the Diaspora. This fable asserts that it is only because of external intervention and others’ malice that Lebanon has suffered for so long. Rid the land of the scheming foreigners (Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians, or Americans), and peace and prosperity will surely return. This fable dovetails with another: “None of us is guilty of anything,” or al-`afou al`aam, as it is officially known: the general amnesty law that exempted all Lebanese, regardless of militia or confessional membership, from prosecution for any of the numerous and varied war crimes and crimes against humanity that were carried out in the country from 1975-1991.

Darker fables still, ghost stories, in fact, haunt the sunny expanse of Beirut’s currently crowded Martyrs’ Square: the untold tales of what actually happened to the 17,000 Lebanese who were disappeared during the war and who still remain missing and unaccounted for today. Even if all foreign troops and interlopers were to leave Lebanon tomorrow, no amount of elections or freedom-loving rhetoric would remove the most harmful curse hanging over the country, one cast by the Lebanese themselves: until the Lebanese confront the seductive but dangerous fables that have enabled them to avoid a critique of confessionalism and an acknowledgment of accountability for massive human rights violations, the latest marvelous stories from Lebanon cannot have a happy ending. Lebanon’s past is in serious need of policing. Without an immediate resurrection of an independent judiciary and the rule of law, the fabulous events of the last week will remain fables and dreams devoid of substance.

Has a Spell Been Broken?

Yet, something fabulous is happening in Lebanon. Not even a cynic can deny it. After Hariri’s killing, a spell was broken. An unexpected social transfiguration occurred: The Lebanese transcended the barrier of silence and stopped being afraid. In the process, and maybe just temporarily, they stopped being Maronites or Sunnis or Druse, Communist or Kata’eb, and became equals, generating something akin to what Hannah Arendt called the “space of appearance,” i.e., the public realm, the only space in which human beings can truly be political actors. This, not a televised election, is what makes or breaks a democracy and lends power and legitimacy to a political order. And although conspiracy theorists try to refute it, the outpouring of emotion and opinion in Beirut was spontaneous and unrehearsed.

And it appears to be contagious: Today came news of bold and extraordinary actions in the Syrian capital: more than 200 Syrian writers, artists and human rights activists issued an open letter on Tuesday to President Bashar al-Assad calling on his regime to withdraw from Lebanon. Only a month ago, such defiance in Damascus would have seemed the stuff of fables. Friends and family experiencing the heady and liminal landscapes of Beirut telephone and e-mail us to conjure up even more fabulous possibilities: perhaps the intifaadat al-istiqlaal (the Independence Uprising), as most in Lebanon are calling the emergent events, ideas, and sociopolitical formations of the last week, might spread to Syria itself? And if so, who benefits? In their excitement and enchantment with the fabulous events taking place in Beirut, too many are forgetting or ignoring the reality that their magic circle is far from complete. Few members of Lebanon’s large and influential Shi`a community have joined the uprising. Not to ask why is to undermine the fragile beginnings of the new democratic order that may be emerging now on Beirut’s streets.

Istiqlaal or Istighlaal?

For many who actually live in the Middle Eastern countries that Bush and other neoconservatives fantasize about, notions of “independence” and “democracy” have lost their formerly fabulous sheen, magical appeal and transformational qualities. Those calling for democracy now in Beirut, and those cheering them on from afar, are accused, and perhaps justly so, of falling for the Bush administration’s dangerous and delusional rhetoric about “untamed fires of freedom.” Regime change in Iraq, heralded as “complete” by George W. Bush as he strutted about in a flight suit while living out his military fantasies in May 2003, actually began a dozen years earlier with his father’s rout of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and the beginning of a UN sanctions regime that, along with Saddam Hussein’s unrelenting cruelty, undercut the Iraqi people’s ability to be actors in a political drama that affected them so deeply. One need look no further than the days of the uprising in southern Iraq in February and March of 1991 to understand why many throughout the Middle East are increasingly nervous about Lebanon’s “independence uprising.” Nor need one look further than the Bush administration’s disappointment in April 2003 that so few Iraqis were welcoming US troops with open arms to appreciate how bizarrely fabulous is the neoconservatives’ conception of social and political realities in the Arab world.

Furthermore, those held beyond the reach of the rule of law, in breach of the Geneva Conventions in Guantanamo, a legal no-man’s land beyond institutions, accountability, or even interstitiality, are not just symbols of US failures in and towards the Middle East, but are, more ominously, harbingers of a future world order devoid of justice, due process, fairness and accountability at the national and international levels. As long as a place like Guantanamo can exist, democracies – and the rule of law on which they rise or founder — are threatened across the globe. Only a child or a madman can believe President Bush’s fables of freedom when they are juxtaposed with the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

It is not cynical, then, but quite logical to ask whether it is independence and freedom or exploitation and submission that the world’s superpower truly desires for the Arab world. Istiqlaal (independence), requires trust, dignity, justice, and equality. Istighlaal (exploitation), entails submission, humiliation, corruption, and fear. In the language of fables, is the US an evil or a benevolent stepmother? Is the Middle East about to give birth to democracy? And if so, was the child conceived naturally, miraculously, or through some sort of political artificial insemination?

Miraculous births — whether to aged women or tender virgins — are recurring themes in the most ancient fables of the Middle East. Marriage, conception, and birth are the aims of passages between liminal stages for individuals and communities, and have always provided rich materials for some of the most compelling tales performed by storytellers of the region. Metaphors of motherhood, gestation, birth and parentage also figure prominently in everyday discussions of politics in Lebanon and Palestine. In my travels as an anthropologist and a journalist in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel, I’ve often noticed that elections and revolutions are compared to weddings, and how political parties are likened to a child that people have created, nourished, and cared for.

Similarly, fables of perverted weddings, conceptions, and births are told to warn of political exploitation and oppression. The theme of using democratic institutions and practices to accomplish undemocratic ends emerged in a long conversation I had with a newspaper editor in Nazareth shortly after an earlier election that supposedly heralded fabulous changes and marvelous possibilities for the Middle East: Israel’s 1992 Knesset elections. In 1992, Palestinian citizens gave the lion’s share of their votes to two Zionist parties, Labor and Meretz, rather than to the communist-dominated Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, which had garnered the majority of their votes in Israeli national elections for nearly two decades.

My interlocutor downplayed Israeli and US euphoria over the 1992 Knesset election results, which brought the late Yitzhak Rabin to power, and warned that there were no magic answers to the deeper and underlying structural problems facing Palestinians in Israel: Israel was not a true democracy, and Palestinians would remain second class citizens “outside the rules of the game” until the game and its structures were changed. One election was not going to accomplish that.

He went on to compare Palestinian citizens’ support for the Labor Party to surrogate motherhood, describing Palestinian citizens’ votes for Zionist parties as a borrowed womb: “im panduqiut” (“a hotel-mother” in Hebrew). “We don’t matter to their overall scheme; our interests and feelings don’t concern them. They just use us as a vehicle to reach their goal, then it’s ‘shalom, see you around!’–until next time!” A third party to this conversation, a human rights activist, invoked a very local fable by observing: “mitl ihbaal bi-laa dannas–hadheh ikhtiSaaSnaa hon bin-naasira!” (“like the immaculate conception! This is our specialty here in Nazareth!”), drawing an ironic parallel to the famous tale of an earlier Nazareth womb being used to accomplish larger goals.

Being used or exploited to achieve others’ interests has been a specialty not only of Palestine and Lebanon, but of much of the Middle East as well over the last century. Arab fears of American fables of freedom are particularly well founded now, yet these fears can themselves be easily exploited and turned to harmful ends. But if the fabulous events unfolding in Lebanon are to prove truly marvelous, if a new baby is indeed being born, it will have to be the offspring of an indigenous womb and the result of a passionate and beautifully messy conception unorchestrated by external parties seen or unseen. Lebanon, that fabulous “house of many mansions,” might be a good home for a miraculous baby with many and diverse parents.

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