A new book about Lebanon argues the country represents the many challenges facing the Middle East. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie says the reality is more complicated.
A Mirror of The Arab World: Lebanon in Con?ict
W.W. Norton & Co
There is something about the map of the Middle East that invites redrawing, and in the past year a number of contemporary artists have depicted its parts, shifting and malleable. Anawana Haloba, a Zambian artist, turned states into tabletops in The Road Map, at last year’s Sharjah Biennial while Oraib Toukan, a Jordanian artist of Palestinian descent, put The New(er) Middle East on a wall as a jigsaw puzzle with curvy, fictitious states orbiting Israel and Palestine. At Art Dubai last month, Marwan Rechmaoui, from Lebanon, carved the 22 countries of the Arab League out of tough black rubber and affixed them to a wall at Madinat Arena, each one pulled slightly apart from its neighbours.
These works allude not only to the artificial nature of national boundaries in the Arab world, but to the crass pronouncements of policymakers bent on drawing the region’s contours anew.
Sandra Mackey’s new book, A Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict, also tries to redraw this map, but the results are less than encouraging. Mackey is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia, and the author of five previous books on the Middle East. Her latest work attempts to pull the various threads of her research together in one tome, with Lebanon as the knot that, once untangled, will explain everything that ails the Arab world. But on Mackey’s map, the Arab world is composed of only 11 states – she deletes North Africa and, for reasons unknown, Yemen – and her interpretation flattens the region’s complexities into crude simplifications.
A Mirror of the Arab World is aimed at Western readers who are afraid that the Middle East is going to erupt and arrive violently on their doorsteps. “The primary purpose of this book is to help the nonspecialist reader learn how to think about the Arab world as it confronts the West with a range of challenges,” writes Mackey, “from political and social instability in a region vital to the global economy to the security of people living within the borders of Western nations.”
Mackey proposes Lebanon as a handy cheat sheet because, she argues, to know Lebanon is to know the Arabs. But instead of using Lebanon as an object of study through which, to use her words, “cultural accommodation” may be reached, she employs it to portray the Arab world as threatening and baffling.
For Mackey Lebanon matters because it is both unique and typical. She argues that it is distinct from the rest of the Arab world (westernised, sophisticated, partly Christian) yet possesses all the elements that make the Arab world a nasty place (tribalism, corruption, militant Islam). But no country can be both unique and typical, and Lebanon is neither.
Why does Lebanon matter? The short answer is that Lebanon is the most likely site for confrontations between the United States and Iran, and between Syria and Israel. A small and weak but relatively open and marginally democratic state, it is used by regional and international powerbrokers alike as a convenient release valve for pressures mounting elsewhere. But rather than analyse the situation, Mackey resorts to typical representations of Lebanon as confounding.
In this, Mackey falls into the first trap Lebanon lays down for all who deign to explain it. She dives into the country’s cataclysmic existential crisis, which is never ending, all-consuming and explains very little. Lebanon may, most optimistically, be a test case for a radical democracy based on agonistic pluralism, but Mackey finds it only an explosive crucible of mixed-up identities based on tribe, clan and kin.
With spectacle and elegy in the same register, Mackey’s treatment of Lebanon builds on an existing body of knowledge – previous books, countless journalistic accounts – that constitutes Lebanon in the popular imagination as a paradise wrecked and reborn vengeful. A Mirror of the Arab World races through the twists and turns of Lebanon’s history from Mar Maroun’s fourth century trek from Antioch to Mount Lebanon through the Maronite conversion to Roman Catholicism, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the French Mandate, the independence era, the go-go days and nights of Beirut’s golden age, the civil war that wrecked the state and ravaged the country from 1975 through 1990 and the politicisation of Lebanon’s Shiite community with the advent of the charismatic cleric Musa Sadr.
She skips over the reconstruction era and careers through a few breathless pages about the assassination of the former Prime Minster Rafik Hariri, the war with Israel in 2006 and the fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al Islam in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp in 2007 before the book stalls and ends.
Her first mention of Hariri comes on page 176, of Hassan Nasrallah on page 234, and her command of the two most galvanising figures in recent Lebanese politics is weak. Solidere gets a single sentence. The shift in Hizbollah’s orientation vis-à-vis the Lebanese state is absent. The United Nations tribunal investigating Hariri’s death and the wave of assassinations that followed is nowhere. Mackey doesn’t mention Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Gebran Tueni or any of the other figures who have been blown to bits since 2005.
Each chapter opens with a snapshot from the Arab world – an orientalist postcard, if you will. One chapter opens in the Nejd, another on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, another in Amman, another still in Bahrain. These freeze-frames are Mackey’s effort to tie Lebanon’s issues to those of the wider Arab world. But they are jarring and discombobulating, inducing a temporal chaos into the narrative while trafficking in stereotypes and clichés.
Mackey depicts the Palestinian refugee who lives in a barren box furnished with “a cheap sofa, some worn chairs, an occasional table holding a box of tissues and a vase of plastic flowers”. She speaks of the Egyptian peasant who “lives in a village of small, mean, mud-brick houses centred around the mosque and the coffee shop”, where two men play “musical instruments of age-old design” and listen to “the professional storyteller” who recites adventures “as told and retold without variation for a thousand years”. Who are these men? What are their stories? Mackey renders stock characters living in a strange, thinly drawn world that is foreign, obscure and exotic.
A Mirror of the Arab World relies heavily on other, better books such as David Fromkin’s sprightly classic, A Peace to End All Peace. And in some instances, she merely parrots information from flawed works such as Kamal Dib’s Warlords and Merchants: The Lebanese Business and Political Establishment, which famously named no names, shied away from Hariri and the controversial story of the real-estate empire Solidere and was aptly characterised by the Lebanese journalist Michael Karam as “toothless”.
Mackey’s previous books – such as The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom, The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation and The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein – have all been gently criticised for their lack of insight and intimate experience. So it is worth noting how badly Mackey fumbles the facts. She considers Lebanon’s ministry of power and water two agencies, not one. She writes that Hariri was killed by 30 kilograms of explosives – a bump compared to the Hariri blast, which shattered windows in Beirut neighbourhoods from Raouche to Mar Mikhael. The UN fact-finding mission determined the blast to be 1,000 kilograms – and that figure has been recycled in virtually every press account since.
Worse, she gets the date of the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s death wrong by two years. He died on June 10, 2000, not June 10, 2002 – and Mackey misses the drama of the date, just two weeks after the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon, which robbed him of a vital political bargaining chip.
She also gives Assad’s son, Syria’s current president, the name Bashir rather than Bashar. Similar, true. But to gauge the difference try this: Find a small street in Beirut with a large concentration of Lebanese Forces Stencils. Find a young man born around 1983 named Bashir (the popularity of the name surged in the wake of the Christian warlord and president-elect Bashir Gemayel’s assassination in 1982). Call him Bashar and see what happens. You might want to duck.
Mackey may have taken the title of her book from a 1993 interview with the Lebanese novelist and journalist Elias Khoury, which ran in the now-defunct Beirut Review. Khoury discussed “Lebanon’s role as a mirror for the Arab world”, but his mirror was more of a projection, a platform or a laboratory.
“What is not done in the Arab world is done here as an experiment to find out how it could be done in the Arab world,” he said. “The main role of Lebanon today is to be a place where all the democratic forces in the Arab world can congregate, debate, and plan the future of the Arab world. This is the real meaning of this country, if we want to give it any meaning.”
In a few lines Khoury offers a more compelling argument than the one Mackey strains to make. Because Lebanon is a country of minorities – that cracked mosaic, that tattered patchwork – one must listen to the positions articulated on the margins to understand not only Lebanon’s problems, but also the critical engagements with those problems – made by artists, writers, thinkers, filmmakers and the young, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed – that seek to analyse, interpret, and, in the process, change the conditions that shape their lives.
But Mackey seems to have gathered no voices, no stories of lived experience. And she ignored what makes Lebanon not unique or typical but at the very least special: the country’s dynamic intellectual energy. She missed out on the laboratory where the meaning of Lebanon is made and tested on a daily basis. Had she grasped that process, she might have found a line of inquiry tethering experiments in Lebanon to experiences in the Arab world, where artists such as Haloba, Toukan and Rechmaoui are making their own maps, holding up their own mirrors and angling for ways to determine their own fate.
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National