A new Black Box for stealing public funds created in Lebanon:
Work Minister Sej3an Azzi created a new financial Black Box
A peine vous concluez que le Liban a atteint le fond de l’incompétence et que le pays du Cèdre ne peut désormais que rebondir, un événement malheureux vient vous signifier combien vous êtes naïfs et qu’il existe encore dans notre pays des profondeurs inexplorées par les dirigeants libanais.
Séjaan Azzi, le ministre du Travail, vient de nous proposer une plongée dans les abîmes de l’absurde.
C’est un secret de Polichinelle, tout le monde sait que le pays de Gibran Khalil Gibran est gangrené par la corruption.
Rien, absolument rien, n’est pas corruptible dans notre contrée d’Orient.
Faisons un petit tour. Que des cas perso, donc tous véridiques.
Prévoyant, j’arrive un beau matin à 8h30 pour demander une fiche d’Etat civil. « Rja3 khédo boukra », comme ça sec. Demain ?
Hors de question, le document ne prend que deux minutes, et cela me coutera encore deux heures d’embouteillages pour un aller-retour afin de le récupérer.
Je sors du bureau et je rentre de nouveau, après avoir glissé un petit billet entre les papiers demandés. Comment je le savais ?
J’ai vu faire, j’étais encore à quatre pattes. « Ahla estez. Repose-toi, prend un café, le temps que je te le prépare ». Au passage, en arabe, le vouvoiement n’est pas courant.
L’immobilier, l’héritage et la voiture, sont des domaines hautement corruptibles.
Je sais de quoi je parle, je l’ai vécu, dans trois dossiers.
Lorsque j’ai fait part de ma réprobation à un avocat en charge d’effectuer une démarche administrative pour moi, il m’a répondu : « c’est très simple, toi en tant que citoyen, tu peux éventuellement te permettre de ne pas céder à ce chantage, tu n’as qu’une affaire à régler ; mais moi, si je le fais, je serai traité comme un pestiféré jusqu’à la fin de ma carrière ».
Un jour j’arrive à 11h45 pour payer une facture, j’ai bien dit, payer une facture. Les services ne ferment qu’à midi. Eh bien figurez-vous, mon devoir de citoyen n’a pas pu s’exprimer que grâce à un billet vert.
The Hamilton ($10) m’a évité de revenir le lendemain.
Port et aéroport de Beyrouth, haddiss bala haraj, au moins pour le premier. Un jour, j’ai eu la malencontreuse idée de faire venir quelques affaires sans grande valeur marchande par bateau.
Je ne vous dis pas, c’était le parcours du combattant pour les récupérer. Certains Libanais n’ont pas la moindre idée de ce qui se passe dans cette zone extraterritoriale. Je le savais, on m’avait prévenu.
Mais, je ne rechigne que rarement devant une première expérience.
En gros, j’avais deux fois plus d’étapes à effectuer que de cartons à sortir. Certaines étapes me paraissaient complétement farfelues. Ce n’est qu’à la sortie que j’avais compris la raison d’être d’une telle organisation complexe.
Dans ce système hérité de l’époque ottomane, la multiplication des étapes permet de multiplier les intermédiaires, et du coup, tout le monde peut se faire graisser la patte. Ingénieux, hein ?
La palme d’or de la corruption la plus comique à laquelle j’ai été confrontée un jour, revient à un douanier. Je me trouvais à l’aéroport de Beyrouth. N’ayant pas eu ma valise, je suis retourné le lendemain pour la chercher.
Je décroche une autorisation de la Sureté générale pour rentrer dans l’enceinte de l’aéroport sans billet. Je récupère ma valise et je m’apprête à sortir, en fredonnant « hob bladi biyejma3na, biyejma3na 3ala toul ». Tout va bien dans le meilleur des mondes sauf que je suis seul, une proie facile vous dira Cecil d’outre-tombe, il n’y avait aucun avion sur les pistes d’atterrissage à cet instant de la journée.
Un braconnier de la douane flaire la bonne affaire. Il me demande de me mettre sur le côté. Vous n’allez me croire vous aussi, j’avais oublié la clé du cadenas. Il était mort de rire quand je lui ai annoncé la bonne nouvelle. Je le voyais baver sur le Jackson qu’il s’est projeté dans sa tête. 20$ tombés du ciel, enno kekh ? « Je suis obligé de forcer la valise » me dit-il, d’un air à moitié convaincu.
J’ai beau lui expliqué que le bagage qu’il a devant les yeux fut contrôlé dans deux aéroports européens, Paris et Rome, où j’ai passé la journée, et qu’il peut lui même l’examiner au scanner éventuellement. Rien à faire.
« Quel scanner ? Il est à l’autre bout du bâtiment. » Il se croyait à JFK ou à CDG.
Commence alors un long interrogatoire tous azimuts. Il voulait savoir qui j’étais, d’où je venais, où j’allais, ce que je faisais au Liban, mon métier, mon état marital, ma pointure, j’en passe et des meilleures.
J’ai rapidement compris que la multiplication des questions n’avait qu’un but, m’exaspérer et me pousser à sortir ce Jackson (20$) ou un Hamilton (10$) pour abréger la conversation. Quand j’ai compris son stratagème, j’ai décidé de ne rien lui filer, pas même une pièce de 5 piastres.
Lorsqu’il a fini par le comprendre, il me regarda, me sourit et me dit texto : « leik, combien tu me donnes pour que je te laisse passer, heik 3al sari3 ? » Surpris, sourire narquois, je lui répondis : « Ecoute, je vais monter tout de suite dans les bureaux d’Alitalia, pour réclamer un dédommagement de 50$. Dès que je les aurai, je reviendrai te voir et on se les partage. Deal ? ».
D’un air dubitatif, il lâcha ma valise, hocha sa tête, me fit un signe de la main pour déguerpir et me balança en riant : « el tabkha el taïbé, ma btettekal ella soukhné » (le bon plat ne se mange que chaud). « Pas toujours, el ms2a3a wou el loubyé be zeit, se mangent froid », lui dis-je. Nous avons rit de bon cœur tous les deux. Heureusement que la pulsion de corruption n’étouffe pas la bonne humeur libanaise.
Aucun Libanais ou résident au Liban n’a pas une histoire de ce genre.
L’Etat libanais est gangréné par la corruption. On imagine bien à quel point il est difficile de la combattre. Elle peut se manifester à tous les niveaux sans exception.
Au point où nous en sommes, et d’après notre longue expérience en la matière, depuis les bakhchich de la lointaine domination ottomane, on peut admettre qu’un ministre d’Etat nous dise aujourd’hui : mes chers compatriotes, vous m’en voyez désolé, je ne peux rien faire pour vous. Mais de là, à légaliser la corruption au Liban, au nom de la lutte contre la corruption, il fallait oser. Séjaan Azzi a relevé le défi.
Dans sa circulaire controversée datant du 28 juillet 2015, le ministre du Travail précise : « Afin de garantir l’intérêt public… et pour empêcher le citoyen de recourir à des intermédiaires… on procédera à la création d’un fonds spécial qui sera financé d’une manière facultative par les citoyens qui désirent accomplir leurs démarches (administratives) le plus rapidement possible ».
Ces démarches concernent entre autres, la délivrance et le renouvellement des permis de travail aux employés de maison et aux travailleurs du bâtiment. Précision utile, au Liban, ce ne sont pas les employés qui effectuent les démarches mais les employeurs.
Désormais, pour une période d’essai d’un mois, qui souhaite accélérer le traitement de son dossier au ministère du Travail, pour obtenir en 24 à 48 heures ce qui normalement peut prendre 3 à 15 jours, devra s’acquitter de 50 000 LL (33 $).
Les sommes récoltées seront redistribuées aux fonctionnaires du ministère selon un barème établi par le ministre du Travail, la quote-part du directeur général étant le double de celle du concierge, pour les autres, l’intéressement se situe entre les deux marges.
Séjaan Azzi est si fier de lui qu’il n’hésite pas à parler « d’audace et de courage ».
Il se considère comme LE ministre qui veut « mettre un terme à la corruption ». Pour mieux vendre son idée, il prétend que « divers pays ont déjà pris des circulaires de ce genre ».
Ah bon, on aimerait bien savoir lesquels. En tout cas, pas en Europe. Le ministre prévoit même qu’en cas de rejet de la part de l’opinion publique et des médias, « je leur dirais, moi j’ai tenté de faire face à la corruption ».
Il y croit vraiment. Pour être honnête et juste, disons que Séjaan Azzi n’a rien inventé, des démarches administratives à deux vitesses existent à la Sureté générale, afin de permettre aux Libanais aisés et pressés d’obtenir un nouveau passeport ou de renouveler un ancien document de voyage plus rapidement que prévu. Bienvenue au Liban. Ainsi, qui veut faire le procès du ministre du Travail, doit se retourner aussi sur cette pratique instaurée dans les années 90.
Je ne doute pas des bonnes intentions du ministre des Kataeb. D’ailleurs, à l’écouter durant sa conférence de presse, on est presque convaincu de la justesse de sa décision. Mais, plus je réfléchis sur la question, plus je suis persuadé, que cette mesure conduira exactement à l’inverse de l’effet escompté.
Pour convaincre les récalcitrants le ministre du Travail multipliera les arguments incongrus, à l’exception de celui des passeports. Sur ce dernier point, il a entièrement raison, sauf qu’il a omis de préciser que l’argent des passeports en sus est versé au Trésor public et non distribué aux fonctionnaires de la Sureté générale. Nuance.
Toujours est-il que sur le fond, Séjaan Azzi soulève une question fondamentale, auquel le gouvernement de Tammam Salam devra y répondre : peut-on au sein de la République libanaise, instaurer des démarches administratives à deux vitesses ?
Pour tenter d’y répondre, le mieux c’est d’examiner l’argumentation de l’affaire en cours. Pour le ministre d’Etat, la différence entre une démarche administrative « normale » et une « accélérée », se retrouve par exemple dans l’hôtellerie, entre une chambre « classique » et une « suite », ainsi que dans les transports, entre le « taxi » (client unique) et le « service à la libanaise » (clients multiples), selon le principe, payer plus, pour être mieux servi.
Apparemment, notre ministre du Travail n’a pas l’air de comprendre que dans le premier cas, il s’agit d’un « service public », demandé par un « citoyen », alors que dans les autres cas, on a affaire à des « services privés », achetés par des « clients ». Nuance.
Il fallait sans doute commencer par expliquer à Séjaan Azzi que la corruption désigne « l’acceptation de dons illicites », mais aussi « l’incitation à agir contre le devoir ». Il ne suffit pas de légaliser ces « dons » pour se débarrasser de la corruption et faire oublier aux Libanais, qu’un fonctionnaire a le « devoir » de faire son travail consciencieusement et indépendamment du citoyen qui le sollicite, mais aussi de traiter tous les citoyens à égalité et sans aucune distinction.
Tout fonctionnaire qui n’est pas capable de remplir cette mission, n’a qu’à planter des patates dans la Bekaa et pêcher la Sardine en Méditerranée. Les hôtels et les taxis n’ont pas de devoirs.
Par contre, l’Etat en a, mais ça semble échapper à certains dirigeants. Dommage. Pour être juste envers les fonctionnaires libanais, il faut préciser que la grande majorité d’entre eux est honnête, ce n’est qu’une minorité qui prend les citoyens libanais en otage.
La faute incombe aussi à certains nantis Libanais, prétentieux, sans foi ni loi, incapables d’accepter les délais administratives aussi courts soient-ils, ils ont l’impression de tomber de leur piédestal. Hélas, ces corrupteurs jouissent d’une impunité totale.
Comme on le voit, la décision du ministre libanais du Travail, Séjaan Azzi, qui par la nature de sa fonction engage dans la foulée, la responsabilité personnelle du président du Conseil des ministres, Tammam Salam, est une fatwa pour légaliser et gérer la corruption structurelle au Liban.
Elle est à la fois immorale, illégale et anticonstitutionnelle, pour trois raisons. Primo, par cette mesure, Séjaan Azzi encourage la corruption, au lieu de la combattre. C’est immoral. J’y reviendrai. Secundo, le ministre du Travail n’a pas les prérogatives nécessaires pour créer une telle caisse.
C’est illégal. D’ailleurs, il reconnait lui-même que sa décision est « peut-être pas légale à 100 % ».
Tertio, une telle décision crée de facto, une discrimination entre les Libanais, basée sur l’argent. (Emulating the USA system of facilitating the procedures for the wealthy)
C’est anticonstitutionnel. Je ne m’avancerai pas trop en disant que le Conseil constitutionnel invalidera le décret du 28 juillet, qui viole d’une part, le préambule de la Constitution, « Le Liban est une République démocratique, parlementaire, fondée… sur la justice sociale et l’égalité dans les droits et les obligations entre tous les citoyens, sans distinction ni préférence » (paragraphe C), et d’autre part, son article 7, « Tous les libanais sont égaux devant la loi. Ils jouissent également des droits civils et politiques et sont également assujettis aux charges et devoirs publics, sans distinction aucune. »
Dans un pays normal, où le Conseil constitutionnel joue pleinement son rôle, une telle ânerie juridique n’a aucune chance de passer. Reste donc à savoir, si le Liban est encore un pays normal. On le saura rapidement.
En pratique, la décision du ministre du Travail institue des services administratifs à deux vitesses avec des conséquences désastreuses. Dans un premier temps, les fonctionnaires privilégieront les « bons clients », bons payeurs (ce n’est plus la peine de parler de citoyens), qui les ont soudoyé, par rapport ceux qui ne l’ont pas fait, les « mauvais clients », mauvais payeurs.
Par la suite, il n’est pas difficile d’imaginer que parmi ces derniers, ceux qui en ont les moyens, mécontents du service rendu, seront poussés petit à petit à emboiter le pas des premiers, avec sans doute l’encouragement de certains fonctionnaires. Le comble de l’absurde réside dans le fait que cette mesure ne fera absolument pas disparaitre la corruption. Rapidement, les services seront saturés par les « demandes accélérées ». Les délais rapides ne seront plus respectés.
Alors, les bons payeurs mécontents, qui voudront aller plus vite que la musique, reviendront à la vieille pratique, le billet vert glissé entre les papiers. On voit bien, que contrairement aux arguments avancés par Séjaan Azzi dans sa conférence de presse, le ministre du Travail sera l’homme qui a superposé une corruption officielle à la corruption officieuse, qui ne disparaitra jamais.
Pas besoin d’être devin, pour prévoir que ce qui se passera au ministère du Travail fera tâche d’huile là aussi. A long terme, dans tous les services de l’Etat libanais, il existera deux procédures administratives, représentant une double corruption, officielle et officieuse. L’image de l’Etat libanais sortira plus détériorer que jamais.
Et comme d’habitude ce sont les classes moyenne et pauvre qui trinqueront.
Rien à dire, cette décision est indigne de l’Etat libanais. Mais, il faut bien davantage pour déstabiliser le ministre du Travail. Il se montre sûr de lui, en affirmant que quiconque recevra de l’argent sans remettre un reçu à l’intéressé, est un fonctionnaire corrompu. Idem pour celui qui retardera volontairement une démarche classique.
Il affirme aussi que toute personne qui paye plus de 50 000 LL pour accélérer davantage le traitement de son dossier, est un citoyen corrupteur. Séjaan Azzi est même déterminé à renvoyer les corrompus et les corrupteurs devant les tribunaux.
Tayib, ya ma3alé el wazir, puisque vous avez les moyens de le faire, pourquoi ne pas poursuivre ces corrompus et ces corrupteurs officieux sans instaurer une corruption officielle ?
Et puisqu’on y est, si les fonctionnaires du ministère du Travail sont capables d’accélérer les démarches administratives des citoyens libanais, 24-48 heures au lieu de 3-15 jours, pourquoi ils ne le font pas sans les bakhchich ? On aimerait bien savoir.
Je ne comprends pas, si tous les problèmes de corruption au Liban peuvent se résoudre avec le paiement de 50 000 LL (33$) par démarche administrative, pourquoi ne pas instaurer une tarification unique et un raccourcissement général des délais pour TOUS les citoyens sans distinction et dans toutes les administrations d’Antioche et de tout l’Orient ? Toute cette histoire est absurde.
En moins de deux semaines, Séjaan Azzi (ministre du Travail) est donc le 3e ministre que je fais tomber de son piédestal, après Mohammad Machnouk (ministre de l’Environnement) et Wael Abou Faour (ministre de la Santé).
Il n’y était pas, je sais, comme les deux autres d’ailleurs, comme Gebran Bassil (ministre des Affaires étrangères) et Nouhad Machnouk (ministre de l’Intérieur), que j’ai déjà épinglés dans le passé.
Sincèrement, je crois que tous ces ministres aimeraient bien faire, mais ne savent pas s’y prendre et n’y arrivent pas. Il faut les aider en leur montrant le chemin, et surtout, en relevant leurs erreurs.
A vrai dire, je m’inquiète un peu car à ce rythme, dès la fin de l’année, les Libanais n’auront plus de ministres en exercice à la hauteur de leurs espoirs. Déjà que nous sommes sans président de la République et encombrés par 128 parlementaires sclérosés.
Il est temps de sonner le tocsin : les Libanais compétents, toutes tendances politiques et appartenances communautaires confondues, ont vraiment le devoir de s’impliquer en politique.
OUI au traitement accéléré de toutes les démarches administratives au Liban pour tous les citoyens sans aucune discrimination.
NON à l’instauration des démarches administratives à deux tarifications et à deux vitesses.
Pour lutter contre la corruption, il faut des mesures de bon sens.
En premier lieu, le gouvernement et ses ministres doivent établir au plus vite des délais standards pour l’accomplissement de toutes les démarches administratives libanaises et imposer leur respect par les fonctionnaires libanais. Ceux-ci seront affichés à l’entrée des ministères. Le non-respect de ces délais devrait entrainer des sanctions financières contre les fonctionnaires défaillants.
Une retenue de salaire par exemple. C’est exactement le contraire de ce que propose le ministre du Travail. C’est bien une telle mesure qui sera audacieuse et courageuse. Mais, il ne faut pas rêver, pour mettre en œuvre cette mesure choc, tous les partis politiques libanais doivent donner leur feu vert, pour qu’aucun fonctionnaire corrompu ou aucun citoyen corrupteur ne se sente au-dessus de la loi.
Il faut aussi multiplier les contrôles secrets dans tous les services publics de l’Etat libanais et viser aussi bien les corrompus que les corrupteurs.
Il convient également de faire la chasse aux emplois (pseudo)fictifs dans les administrations libanaises (ah si, ça existe !), les doubles emplois (public-privé, eh oui, ça existe !) et l’absentéisme (n’en parlons pas), ainsi qu’à la léthargie administrative.
On pourra ensuite revoir les tarifications et augmenter les salaires de la fonction publique pour mieux motiver les fonctionnaires honnêtes.
Dans tous les cas de figure, il est indispensable de simplifier toutes les démarches administratives au Liban (obsolètes pour la plupart, figées depuis l’époque ottomane et du mandat français, ou presque), de moderniser les administrations publiques (à quoi s’attendre d’un pays dont les jugements de ses tribunaux sont encore manuscrits !) et de développer les démarches électroniques.
Eh oui, c’est un point capital : moins il y a d’intermédiaires et de contacts entre les Libanais et les fonctionnaires, moins il y aura de corruption au Liban. Elémentaire.
Note: Our political people are intelligent and highly experienced in extorting and amassing money. This militia system refuse to invest in infrastructure and paying well the public servants (one third of the employed citizens) in order to pocket the budget and taxes and let the citizens pay twice for any services.
Could this enduring Garbage Crisis become the issue that breaks Lebanon’s status quo politics?
In a country rotten to the core with incompetence and corruption, it is a particularly fitting piece of poetic justice that garbage collection may be the straw to break Lebanon’s proverbial back. (The political leaders are Not incompetent: They are too clever in reaping and steeling the public funds to the hilt)
While power outages can be remedied with the help of generators, and water shortages managed with bulk purchases (citernes, water tankers), there is no quick-fix for garbage collection.
Even Lebanon’s most privileged can only do so much to isolate themselves from the festering piles that are now blocking roads and choking out the most isolated municipalities.
There is a popular notion that the Lebanese traditionally adhere to their political leaders’ agendas without much challenge, as suggested by this early 2000s TV spot.
But an overview of the news, and the reality on the ground, suggests a recent shift.
The momentum that fuels secularist and women’s rights movements, and visceral responses that inspired the #JusticeForYves hashtag display an impressive social cohesiveness motivated by frustration with socially conservative notions and rampant corruption.
And while this can be boiled down to Internet outrage, these movements undeniably demonstrate Lebanon’s ability to rapidly collectivize and mobilize around specific cases of political and social discontent.
Now, the #YouStink movement, like the garbage that triggered it, has spilled into the streets, in plain sight.
States ruled by corrupt governments are often enabled by a weak civil society.
But in Lebanon, blessed with neither regional stability nor significant natural resources, the population has never had the luxury of remaining unengaged.
(Here I beg to differ. For 20 years, the youth refrained from getting engaged in internal politics. They focused their attention on international activities such as Global Warming, Organic food, Human rights… It is this specific lengthy garbage crisis with no resolutions in sight that got the youth into asking the relevant questions on their internal problems, and the answers were baffling and humiliating and they felt the wide range of indignities they succumbed to for 30 years.
“How the external world will perceive us” was the first motivation until they got educated on their rotten political militia system)
This has had the effect of pushing the population towards parties promising to protect the interests of their sect, further aggravating the sectarian lines upon which the country is drawn.
But those institutionalized powers have long since failed to provide basic services.
Indeed, Lebanon’s current political class lost legitimacy long before rubber bullets and tear gas were aimed at peaceful protestors demanding the most basic of human rights.
Unlike many states fettered by corruption and nepotism, Lebanon boasts the rare combination of a healthy blogosphere, a digitally engaged community and, recently, momentum born of frustration that just may be sufficient to challenge the political status quo.
But the real duality exists not between religions or lifestyles, but between status quo politicians and a younger, educated generation fully aware of the ineptitude by which they are governed.
The governing political class does not yet appear to have grasped that the culture of impunity that enabled them during the war years no longer exists. It is this sense of entitlement that motivated parliament to extend its own term, and misled them into believing that their incompetence would not be challenged, even when failing to provide the most basic of services to the population they are there to serve.
Lebanon is not by definition the weakest link in the region – it is the weakest link because it has since the civil war failed to produce a national strategy with sovereign interests in mind.
Failure to strategize is what allowed the Cedar Revolution to be co-opted by both external and internal forces, disenfranchising the very voices that thought their moment had come.
What differentiates the #YouStink movement from past protests is not only its size and staying power, but also the fact that it arose organically, without being sponsored by a specific political side, external or internal.
Indeed, on its Facebook page, organizers publically decried politicians attempting to co-opt the movement, affirming that their participation “is not welcome so long as you are a part of the authority.”
The #YouStink movement is the opportunity for Lebanese civil society to replace the status quo political class that has long governed without accountability or transparency.
The momentum must be sustained by a unified strategy prioritizing the prosperity of the Lebanese people, and by propping up a fresh wave of candidates for the upcoming elections. Only then can a new political class emerge, one unfettered by the collective failure of current political authorities.
the #YouStink movement, like the garbage that triggered it, has spilled into the streets, in plain sight.”
Most Fractured Place on Earth?
This Near-East region of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan
Note in context: This region has been established as the cradle of civilisation where the first urban City-States have been established along the seashore and the main rivers of the Euphrates, Tiger and the Orontes.
Due to its topography, this region was an open land for all the warrior nations to conquer it (The Babylonian, Assyrian, Mogul, Persian, Greeks, Roman…) All these warrior nations transferred the skilled artisans to their fiefdom and claimed that what were built were of their culture and archaeology.
The latest occupiers were the Ottoman Empire (1516) then the French and British.
The people in the Near-East and Iraq paid allegiance to the Ottoman Empire, but never admitted to be Turks. The early 20th century ideology of a Nation based on a pure race ignited the many uprising of the people against the new Turkish government and their discriminating policies and viewed as occupiers.
The terms Levant and Levantine were coined by the French and represented the population living in urban centers on the Mediterranean seashore, who were mostly engaged in trading with Europe. The massive migration of the Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians to Egypt before during the WWI established a thriving Levantine communities in Egypt that transformed the daily presses, publication and cultural centers in Alexandria, Cairo and many other urban centers, as well as competing in trade with the established Greek and Italian communities.
And now this essay or book review.
Of the many names given the brutal, black-flag-waving entity currently marauding its way across the rubble of Syria and Iraq, ISIL is the strangest and the most ironic.
The L in the acronym favored by the US State Department stands for “Levant,” a term that for centuries referred to a part of the world where cultures met, borders blurred, and religions, languages, and peoples cross-bred—for better or for worse.
In English, the word “Levantine” has long been a pejorative term, and at a certain colonial point referred to those upwardly mobile non-Muslim Middle Easterners considered contemptible by commentators of various stripes for being neither here nor there, whether socially or ethically.
“Among this minority are to be found individuals who are tainted with a remarkable degree of moral obliquity,” sniffed onetime consul general of Egypt Evelyn Baring back in 1908.
Yet for those more recent writers and thinkers who have set out to reclaim the term, such hybridity is the key to what has made the region vital.
In his ground breaking 1993 book After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, for instance, Ammiel Alcalay writes of the “fertile symbiosis” and “dense and intricate interconnectedness” of the “old” Levantine world
Which brings us back to the irony of that L in ISIL:
Whether muttlike menace or commendable cosmopolitan, the classic, shape-shifting “Levantine” seems the very opposite of the rigid young zealot now being enlisted to behead captives, rape slaves, and smash ancient statuary in the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s viciously monolithic caliphate.
(ISIS is Not a Levantine movement: It is a Saudi Arabia Wahhabi theological sect and constituted mostly of foreign mercenaries Not from any Levantine States)
Also at odds with such murderous single-mindedness is the fact that the precise geographic location of the Levant is notoriously hard to pin down.
The Arabic word for it is Sham, a slippery designation that may refer to modern Syria, the city of Damascus, or so-called Greater Syria, which in historical terms is the land that stretches between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates.
Etymologically, Bilad al-Sham is the “land of the left hand,” as opposed to the Yemen “land of the right hand”.
Both of these terms place Mecca at the center of their compass.
Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic confuses directional things further with a definition of “Sham” that begins “the northern region, the North.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Levant” indicates the “countries of the East,” specifically “the eastern part of the Mediterranean, with its islands and the countries adjoining.”
The English word derives from the French levant, “rising”—that is, indicating the point where the sun comes up. All of which make “the Levant” a genuinely relative term. (As if European dictionaries are the proper sources for defining and explaining the social structure and social fabrics of this region)
That relativity is made palpable by several powerful Levant-focused literary works that have recently appeared, or reappeared, in English. While these books and the material they collect predate by decades the current mayhem near Mosul, the present situation is obviously a product of the region’s longer chaotic modern history.
And as each of these authors reckons with that quicksilver thing she calls “the Levant,” she and her work become worthy of our serious 21st-century attention.
Not that these variable notions of the place could or should be ours.
Both the British Olivia Manning (1908–1980) and the Egyptian born Jewish Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, was educated in French schools, spoke English with her British nanny, and was very much a member of that liminal Levantine bourgeoisie for which Manning had such scorn.
By her own account, she was “not Egyptian,” though she moved easily around the polyglot Cairo of her day. “When I was a small child,” she writes, “it seemed natural that people understood each other although they spoke different languages, and were called by different names—Greek, Moslem, Syrian, Jewish, Christian, Arab, Italian, Tunisian, Armenian.”
Kahanoff (1917–1979) were, by their own accounts, the products of highly fraught cultural situations—which made them as much symptoms of those situations as detached commentators on the same. But each approached the Levant with a canny understanding of both her own personal history and the region’s at large.
First published between 1977 and 1980, and recently reissued by New York Review Books Classics, The Levant Trilogy is a keenly intelligent and intensely readable trio of novels that follow a cast of characters and a historical trajectory that the marvelous if underappreciated Manning introduced in her Balkan Trilogy.
Known together as The Fortunes of War, the whole panoramic series is ostensibly fiction, but, at least in terms of the female figure at its heart, it hews so closely to the author’s own experience that one might almost think of it as memoir wearing a bit of well-applied makeup.
Written between 1956 and 1964 and also reissued several years back, the earlier Balkan Trilogy unfolds during the initial years of World War II and sends its main British characters first to Bucharest and then scuttling to Athens, the Iron Guard and the German Army close at their heels.
The Balkan Trilogy ends with a dramatic escape from Europe, as the uncomfortably matched newlyweds Harriet and Guy Pringle and a ragtag crew of their compatriots flee Greece in a rusty, overcrowded, undersupplied ship while bombs splash down in the Piraeus harbor all around them. After several days, “The passengers had awakened in Egyptian waters and were struck by the whiteness of the light. It was too white. It lay like a white dust over everything. Disturbed by its strangeness, Harriet felt their lives now would be strange and difficult.”
The Levant that the Pringles find once they disembark—as Olivia Manning and her real-life husband, Reggie Smith, did in April 1941—is not a welcoming haven, but a parched and menacing place of last resort. Even as they settle into a tense routine in the midst of wartime Cairo, the setting continues to be for them little more than a haze of flies and filth:
“So Egypt was not only the Sphinx, the lotus columns, the soft flow of the Nile. It was also the deadening discomfort and sickness that blurred these sights so, in the end, one cared for none of them.” That “one” does pointed work here, as Manning seems to speak not just for Harriet but for a whole category of displaced and dyspeptic Englishmen, squinting in the Levantine glare.
* * *
It’s tempting to simply write off this account of the sweat and stink of Cairo as Orientalism, boilerplate mid-20th-century Western contempt for a poor, Eastern, mostly Muslim setting.
And Manning, for all her worldliness, can often sound utterly squeamish and British. She and her characters make frequent reference, for example, to an unpleasant digestive condition they call “Gyppie tummy”; and when staying at a “Levantine pension of the poorest kind, a place so dark and neglected, everything seemed coated with grime,”
Harriet berates Guy for rubbing his forehead after touching a bannister knob, “telling him he might pick up leprosy, smallpox, plague or any of the killer diseases of Egypt.”
The description of the dirty pension as “Levantine” is telling. While over the course of the trilogy, Harriet wanders to Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem, she treats the Levant as little more than a geographical given, an alien place where she finds herself stranded. That designation, “Levantine,” meanwhile is meant here as the disdainful Evelyn Baring intended it.
In Manning’s prose, the word bobs up almost always accompanied by a knowing sneer whose overtones are vaguely sexual and economic—even faintly whorish.
So it is that the “Levantine ladies” at Groppi’s famous Cairo garden café “came to eye the staff officers who treated it as a home away from home.” One Englishwoman complains that her lover is amusing himself with “some ‘Levantine floosie,’” and a British writer gripes that he’s being cheated by his landlady, “a greedy Levantine hag.”
To be fair, Manning is often recounting what others have said, rather than words she or Harriet might themselves speak—though that line is often smudged. After their stint in Cairo, Manning and Smith moved to Jerusalem, where they lived for three years, and where, in a more explicitly autobiographical 1944 essay, Manning described how “to those of us who had been exhilarated by the Greek fight for freedom, the indifference, waste and dishonesty of the vast, profiteering Levantine population of Cairo was an unending nightmare.”
But Manning was far too subtle a writer to leave it at that. Harriet may “be” Manning, and vice versa. (In a fine new biography of the novelist, Olivia Manning: A Woman at War, Deirdre David calls Harriet a “barely disguised fictional surrogate” and describes the novelist’s dismay on hearing that Emma Thompson was slated to play Harriet in a BBC adaptation of the trilogies:
“Look at my dainty feet!” she’s reported to have said. “Hers are enormous!”) She was, though, also an exacting and self-aware artist with the perspective afforded both by her own unsentimental, first=hand perceptions and the passage of time.
The aspiring 36-year-old novelist who wrote that essay in British Mandate Palestine was not the same as the older and presumably wiser Manning who hunkered down in 1970s London to compose The Levant Trilogy, her final work. By then, Nasser had come and gone; Palestine had disappeared; and as she looked back across the decades and narrated the saga of her years in the Levant, Manning was also describing how the sun that always rises in the east had set on the British Empire.
When, in the opening pages of the trilogy, an earnest young soldier enthuses to Harriet about everything the English have done for the Egyptians, she laughs at him: “What have we done for them?… I suppose a few rich Egyptians have got richer by supporting us, but the real people of the country, the peasants and the backstreet poor, are just as diseased, underfed and wretched as they ever were.”
In a scene that’s startling not so much for its sexual sordidness as for the unexpected sympathetic shift it achieves, Harriet winds up tooling around Cairo’s red-light district with an odd-lot group of expats.
As an “entertainment,” one of the Englishmen, Castlebar, a poet and occasional university lecturer, arranges for a young man to “perform” for the group with a “half-negro woman in a dirty pink wrapper…fat, elderly, bored and indifferent,” who “threw off the wrapper and lay on a bunk, legs apart.”
After quickly doing what’s required of him and pulling on his pants, the young man “crossed to Castlebar, smiling his relief that the show was over. He said: ‘Professor, sir you do not know me, but I know you. At times I am attending your lectures.’”
The Levant Trilogy isn’t a novel (or novels) of ideas. Instead, it’s a sharply observed study of the interplay between foreground and background, the personal and the political, as well as a masterfully rendered account of how one rickety marriage evolves over the years and in the shadow of cataclysmic events.
That said, it’s a work that does bring alive various vexing questions about the West’s historical role in the East. In theoretical terms, such a critique may feel like old postcolonial hat—and it’s likely that Manning never really did come to approve of those protean Levantines.
Perhaps she believed that they shared the blame for exploiting the “peasants and the backstreet poor” with the Europeans who were just passing through. But the way she embodies these familiar abstractions in her flesh-and-blood people lands like a surprise punch in the gut.
Manning’s gripping not-so-fictional fiction has never received the attention it deserves, though her status as what Deirdre David calls “one of the most under-valued and under-read British women novelists of the twentieth century” seems a function of the usual ebbs and flows of literary fashion
The relative obscurity of Jacqueline Kahanoff is more complicated.
Outside a small, devoted circle of writers and academics, she’s almost entirely unknown in the United States; in Israel, where Kahanoff spent the last 25 years of her life, she enjoyed a serious—if somewhat underground—reputation as a writer’s writer and not-quite-public intellectual.
While never a household name, she did exert a strong, quiet influence on several generations of local novelists and thinkers.
Born in Cairo into an Iraqi and Tunisian Jewish family, Kahanoff wrote primarily in English, though until the recent US publication of Mongrels or Marvels, a collection of what its editors call her “Levantine writings,” her work was available only in anthologized English excerpts and in Hebrew translation, published first in journals beginning in the 1950s, then in book form in 1978.
The Israeli writer Ronit Matalon featured a character named Jacqueline Kahanoff in her 1995 novel, The One Facing Us, reproducing without comment several lengthy passages from the writer’s essays; another collection of Kahanoff’s translated journalism appeared in Israel in 2005.
Meanwhile, her own English words have been little more than a rumor: Before now, her only book to appear in its entirety in English was her single completed novel, Jacob’s Ladder, a raw but compelling bildungsroman published in 1951 in the United States and England and currently out of print. Mongrels or Marvels, thoughtfully compiled by scholars Deborah Starr and Sasson Somekh, allows English readers at last to assess a generous gathering of Kahanoff’s work on its own intriguing terms
Kahanoff, neé Jacqueline Shohet, was educated in French schools, spoke English with her British nanny, and was very much a member of that liminal Levantine bourgeoisie for which Manning had such scorn. By her own account, she was “not Egyptian,” though she moved easily around the polyglot Cairo of her day. “When I was a small child,” she writes, “it seemed natural that people understood each other although they spoke different languages, and were called by different names—Greek, Moslem, Syrian, Jewish, Christian, Arab, Italian, Tunisian, Armenian.”
Utopian as such a genially pluralistic society may sound, the Egypt where she came of age was as stifling as it was diverse; it was also—as she and her peers saw clearly—poised to explode. And that inevitable eruption was one whose causes she understood, but whose results she knew would exclude her.
As she would later write: “even though we sympathized with the Moslem nationalists’ aspirations we did not believe them capable of solving the real problems of this [Egyptian] society, and for this they could not forgive us.”
The “they” and “us” here are at once refreshing for their honesty and startling for their paternalism. “We”—that is, Kahanoff and her kind—believed wholeheartedly in Europe and its “civilizing” powers; “they,” for their part, did not. By the time Kahanoff wrote this, in Israel in the late 1950s, her attitude toward her earlier convictions was tinged with a certain darkness, as if now she realized how blinkered she and her privileged Cairene cohort had been.
While she was very much the product of her colonial education, she had, over the years—and since leaving Egypt—come to feel decidedly un-European. So it was that she could also write of how, as children, “we learned nothing about ourselves or what we should do. We did not know how it had happened that Jewish, Greek, Moslem, and Armenian girls sat together to learn about the French Revolution, patrie, liberté, egalité, fraternité. None of us had experienced any of these things. Not even our teachers really believed these words had anything to do with our lives.”
Her sense of alienation wasn’t just a function of her role as a well-heeled English- and French-speaking Jew in a poor, largely Arabic-speaking Muslim society, or as a dyed-in-the-wool Middle Easterner being schooled as if she were une jeune fille in Paree. She was curious and intellectually independent in ways that made life difficult for a girl in the sheltered confines of her particular class.
As was expected of her, she married young, but this was her ticket out: Kahanoff left Egypt for the United States with her new husband in 1940. Seeking refuge elsewhere, she must practically have passed the refuge-seeking Olivia Manning and her new husband in the Alexandria harbor.
As Kahanoff would eventually explain in “A Generation of Levantines,” her signature essay cycle: “Perhaps, one day, I would be able to write about this Egypt I both loved and hated, the frail little world, seemingly so perfect, but in reality so rotten that it had to fall apart—to give birth to one of which I might feel a part. But first I would have to assess my generation in search of itself, and this I could only do from afar.” All her most lasting work was written once she was, so to speak, out of Egypt.
Soon divorced, Kahanoff went to college and studied for a journalism degree at Columbia, wrote fiction, and befriended various European refugee intellectuals in New York. After a short period in Paris, she and her second husband settled in Israel in 1954, moving initially to the isolated, working-class desert town of Beersheba.
Replicating in a striking manner the cultural aloofness of her generation in Egypt—“we were,” she’d write of the muddled verbal milieu of her childhood, “a people without a language”—she never really learned Hebrew; her Arabic was poor.
And though she’d chosen to live in Israel, Kahanoff was hardly a card-carrying Zionist. According to those who knew her, the writer’s refined and somehow aristocratic bearing was at distinct odds with her scrappy new surroundings. Her literary sensibility was also peculiar to the context: Her best essays are composed in a belletristic, personal, and—for lack of a better term—“feminine” style whose indirect and graceful tack seems to this day foreign to the tough-talking Israeli atmosphere.
While she was certainly engaged in a kind of polemic, the tone of her often memoiristic prose was gentle and contemplative; she didn’t shout. And, most important, she chose to write about the place she had come from (Egypt) and the place where she’d landed (Israel) not as two enemy entities locked in a struggle to the death, but as part of the same geographical and cultural continuum—one that extended, as the medieval trade routes had, all around the Mediterranean.
Mild as that sounds, Kahanoff was proposing something radical for her moment. In many ways, it’s radical now. During the same years that Polish-born, then–prime minister David Ben-Gurion was sternly warning about the dangers of Israel’s “Levantinization” and promising “to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies,” Kahanoff was attempting to reclaim the L-word and make it a label to be proud of, in all its complexity.
There was, she insisted, no shame in mixing, in crossing over, in being in between: Such hybridization was, in fact, Israel’s great and maybe only hope. The country’s Ashkenazi elite should, she wrote, stop pretending that the Jewish state was some fortresslike bastion of Western Enlightenment values, besieged on all sides by purportedly “irrational” societies, and instead embrace its place as part of a wider Middle Eastern expanse.
What’s more, Eastern Jews like Kahanoff and the hundreds of thousands of other recent arrivals from Morocco, Iraq, and other nearby lands could, she insisted, serve as a kind of bridge or model—as natives of the region and heirs to a developed tradition of cultural symbiosis. For now (the year was 1959), these “oriental Jews” suffered from what she described as a form of internal colonialism: condescension and discrimination at the hands of the country’s “well-established old timers.”
The “Levantinization” that Kahanoff advocated would work to spread power more equitably within Israel itself and to bring the new nation into a more dynamically integrated relationship with its surroundings.
A great deal of history has lumbered by since Kahanoff wrote, and some of her ideas seem hopelessly rosy or reductive when one thinks of the current bloody state of things both within Israel/Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Given her sophisticated reading of internal Israeli politics, she could be blind to other critical local dynamics.
After 1967, she put forth unsettlingly patronizing notions—for instance, about how Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza might benefit Arab farmers by teaching them “new techniques of agricultural production.”
Her refusal to wrestle more critically with the way Israel controls Palestinian land and lives, along with her idealized call for a Levant that might exist beyond the predictable rhetorical realm of “the conflict,” have unfortunately made it possible in recent years for certain Israeli intellectuals to adopt (and, I’d argue, twist) her ideas and see them as an invitation to avoid the hard questions—that is, forget the Occupation and ignore the Arabs.
According to the proponents of this weirdly wishful brand of Levantinism, Israel might most comfortably find its place as part of a sun-dappled, wine-sipping Mediterranean idyll that includes pristine Greek beaches and pretty Italian ports, but not Gaza, with its siege, its sewage, its suffering.
Kahanoff is no longer here to see how things have evolved and to speak for herself, but it’s hard to imagine a writer as clear-eyed and lucid as she was averting her gaze or pocketing her pen in the face of such difficult realities. In a way, her “soft” style and her emphasis on the important role played historically by the region’s minorities have made it easier for such evasions to take hold in her name.
Yet however dated or wrongheaded some of her ideas now seem, the core of her thinking is still startling and apt. While Eastern Jews now wield much more power than they did in Israel’s early years, and a good deal of “mixing” of the sort Kahanoff urged has taken place within the country’s Jewish population, certain very basic prejudices persist in the realms of high culture, higher education, religious norms, social welfare, and national self-definition.
Never mind how much cheerfully syncopated “Eastern” music pours forth from the radios of Tel Aviv, or how many plates of hummus the average Dimona-dweller consumes monthly; when it comes to how the Jewish past is taught in schools and perceived at large, the Holocaust and the early “heroic” years of European Zionism figure much more centrally than do several millennia of rich and varied Eastern Jewish literature, philosophy, and social history.
The “us or them” rhetoric of Ben-Gurion’s era has come to pervade every aspect of Israeli life. Unabashed racism against Arabs within the country is rampant, as are more subterranean forms of what Sephardic intellectual activist and cultural commentator David Shasha calls “Arab Jewish self-hatred.”
By this, David Shasha means the tendency of so many Eastern Jews to adopt Ashkenazi frames of reference and suppress their own multifarious cultural past.
Sadly enough, some of the most aggressive bigotry against local Arabs comes from Israeli Jews whose grandparents spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. The idea of Israel’s integration into a kind of open Middle Eastern union seems less likely now than ever, and not only because of the bunker that Israel has made of itself. Throughout the wider Levant, violence, repression, extremism, and fear of any sort of other—Yazidis, Assyrians, Kurds, Copts, members of the Muslim Brotherhood—are of course raging.
Which may be exactly why it seems more important now than ever to reckon with Kahanoff’s words and her basic vision of the region as a place that is “not exclusively Western or Eastern, Christian, Jewish, or Moslem.”
While there still flickers a chance to save or even just honor something of the abundantly variegated cultural reality that has existed there for thousands of years, it’s worth considering her own definition of the Levant, which “because of its diversity…has been compared to a mosaic—bits of stone of different colors assembled into a flat picture.
In one of the last essays she wrote before her death, “To me it is more like a prism whose various facets are joined by the sharp edge of differences, but each of which…reflects or refracts light.”
In these dark days, as monomaniacs on all sides attempt to shatter that prism, we can at least stop and try to absorb what remains of the light
Note 1: Maybe the majority of the people in the Near-East and Iraq paid allegiance to the Ottoman Empire, but never as Turks.
Note 2: It is frustrating that essays on the people of this region as based on the colonial authors and opinions.
“Her basic vision of the region as a place that is “not exclusively Western or Eastern, Christian, Jewish, or Moslem.”
While there still flickers a chance to save or even just honor something of the abundantly variegated cultural reality that has existed there for thousands of years, it’s worth considering her own definition of the Levant, which ‘because of its diversity…has been compared to a mosaic—bits of stone of different colors assembled into a flat picture.
To me,” as she put it in one of the last essays she wrote before her death, “it is more like a prism whose various facets are joined by the sharp edge of differences, but each of which…reflects or refracts light.’”
Climate Change: Point of No return?
Historians may look to 2015 as the year when shit really started hitting the fan. Some snapshots:
- In just the past few months, record-setting heat waves in Pakistan and India each killed more than 1,000 people. (Iran experienced an effective heat of 70 Celsius)
2. In Washington state’s Olympic National Park, the rainforest caught fire for the first time in living memory.
3. London reached 98 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest July day ever recorded in the U.K.; The Guardian briefly had to pause its live blog of the heat wave because its computer servers overheated.
4. In California, suffering from its worst drought in a millennium, a 50-acre brush fire swelled seventyfold in a matter of hours, jumping across the I-15 freeway during rush-hour traffic.
5. Then, a few days later, the region was pounded by intense, virtually unheard-of summer rains.
6. Puerto Rico is under its strictest water rationing in history as a monster El Niño forms in the tropical Pacific Ocean, shifting weather patterns worldwide.
7. And all these catastrophic floods in Myanmar
8. And the multiple wild fires in France, Spain, Greece, Australia…
On July 20th, James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist who brought climate change to the public’s attention in the summer of 1988, issued a bombshell: He and a team of climate scientists had identified a newly important feedback mechanism off the coast of Antarctica that suggests mean sea levels could rise 10 times faster than previously predicted: 10 feet by 2065.
The authors included this chilling warning: If emissions aren’t cut, “We conclude that multi-meter sea-level rise would become practically unavoidable. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea-level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”
Eric Rignot, a climate scientist at NASA and the University of California-Irvine and a co-author on Hansen’s study, said their new research doesn’t necessarily change the worst-case scenario on sea-level rise, it just makes it much more pressing to think about and discuss, especially among world leaders. In particular, says Rignot, the new research shows a two-degree Celsius rise in global temperature — the previously agreed upon “safe” level of climate change — “would be a catastrophe for sea-level rise.”
Hansen’s new study also shows how complicated and unpredictable climate change can be.
Even as global ocean temperatures rise to their highest levels in recorded history, some parts of the ocean, near where ice is melting exceptionally fast, are actually cooling, slowing ocean circulation currents and sending weather patterns into a frenzy.
Sure enough, a persistently cold patch of ocean is starting to show up just south of Greenland, exactly where previous experimental predictions of a sudden surge of freshwater from melting ice expected it to be.
Michael Mann, another prominent climate scientist, recently said of the unexpectedly sudden Atlantic slowdown, “This is yet another example of where observations suggest that climate model predictions may be too conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding.”
Since storm systems and jet streams in the United States and Europe partially draw their energy from the difference in ocean temperatures, the implication of one patch of ocean cooling while the rest of the ocean warms is profound.
Storms will get stronger, and sea-level rise will accelerate.
Scientists like Hansen only expect extreme weather to get worse in the years to come, though Mann said it was still “unclear” whether recent severe winters on the East Coast are connected to the phenomenon.
And yet, these aren’t even the most disturbing changes happening to the Earth’s biosphere that climate scientists are discovering this year. For that, you have to look not at the rising sea levels but to what is actually happening within the oceans themselves.
Water temperatures this year in the North Pacific have never been this high for this long over such a large area — and it is already having a profound effect on marine life.
Eighty-year-old Roger Thomas runs whale-watching trips out of San Francisco. On an excursion earlier this year, Thomas spotted 25 humpbacks and three blue whales.
During a survey on July 4th, federal officials spotted 115 whales in a single hour near the Farallon Islands — enough to issue a boating warning. Humpbacks are occasionally seen offshore in California, but rarely so close to the coast or in such numbers. Why are they coming so close to shore?
Exceptionally warm water has concentrated the krill and anchovies they feed on into a narrow band of relatively cool coastal water. The whales are having a heyday. “It’s unbelievable,” Thomas told a local paper. “Whales are all over
Last fall, in northern Alaska, in the same part of the Arctic where Shell is planning to drill for oil, federal scientists discovered 35,000 walruses congregating on a single beach. It was the largest-ever documented “haul out” of walruses, and a sign that sea ice, their favored habitat, is becoming harder and harder to find.
Marine life is moving north, adapting in real time to the warming ocean. Great white sharks have been sighted breeding near Monterey Bay, California, the farthest north that’s ever been known to occur. A blue marlin was caught last summer near Catalina Island — 1,000 miles north of its typical range. Across California, there have been sightings of non-native animals moving north, such as Mexican red crabs.
No species may be as uniquely endangered as the one most associated with the Pacific Northwest, the salmon. Every two weeks, Bill Peterson, an oceanographer and senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Oregon, takes to the sea to collect data he uses to forecast the return of salmon. What he’s been seeing this year is deeply troubling.
Salmon are crucial to their coastal ecosystem like perhaps few other species on the planet. A significant portion of the nitrogen in West Coast forests has been traced back to salmon, which can travel hundreds of miles upstream to lay their eggs. The largest trees on Earth simply wouldn’t exist without salmon.
But their situation is precarious. This year, officials in California are bringing salmon downstream in convoys of trucks, because river levels are too low and the temperatures too warm for them to have a reasonable chance of surviving. One species, the winter-run Chinook salmon, is at a particularly increased risk of decline in the next few years, should the warm water persist offshore.
“You talk to fishermen, and they all say: ‘We’ve never seen anything like this before,’ ” says Peterson. “So when you have no experience with something like this, it gets like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ ”
Atmospheric scientists increasingly believe that the exceptionally warm waters over the past months are the early indications of a phase shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a cyclical warming of the North Pacific that happens a few times each century.
Positive phases of the PDO have been known to last for 15 to 20 years, during which global warming can increase at double the rate as during negative phases of the PDO.
It also makes big El Niños, like this year’s, more likely. The nature of PDO phase shifts is unpredictable — climate scientists simply haven’t yet figured out precisely what’s behind them and why they happen when they do. It’s not a permanent change — the ocean’s temperature will likely drop from these record highs, at least temporarily, some time over the next few years — but the impact on marine species will be lasting, and scientists have pointed to the PDO as a global-warming preview.
“The climate [change] models predict this gentle, slow increase in temperature,” says Peterson, “but the main problem we’ve had for the last few years is the variability is so high. As scientists, we can’t keep up with it, and neither can the animals.” Peterson likens it to a boxer getting pummeled round after round: “At some point, you knock them down, and the fight is over.”
Attendant with this weird wildlife behavior is a stunning drop in the number of plankton — the basis of the ocean’s food chain. In July, another major study concluded that acidifying oceans are likely to have a “quite traumatic” impact on plankton diversity, with some species dying out while others flourish.
As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it’s converted into carbonic acid — and the pH of seawater declines. According to lead author Stephanie Dutkiewicz of MIT, that trend means “the whole food chain is going to be different.”
The Hansen study may have gotten more attention, but the Dutkiewicz study, and others like it, could have even more dire implications for our future. The rapid changes Dutkiewicz and her colleagues are observing have shocked some of their fellow scientists into thinking that yes, actually, we’re heading toward the worst-case scenario. Unlike a prediction of massive sea-level rise just decades away, the warming and acidifying oceans represent a problem that seems to have kick-started a mass extinction on the same time scale.
Jacquelyn Gill is a paleoecologist at the University of Maine. She knows a lot about extinction, and her work is more relevant than ever. Essentially, she’s trying to save the species that are alive right now by learning more about what killed off the ones that aren’t. The ancient data she studies shows “really compelling evidence that there can be events of abrupt climate change that can happen well within human life spans. We’re talking less than a decade.”
For the past year or two, a persistent change in winds over the North Pacific has given rise to what meteorologists and oceanographers are calling “the blob” — a highly anomalous patch of warm water between Hawaii, Alaska and Baja California that’s thrown the marine ecosystem into a tailspin. Amid warmer temperatures, plankton numbers have plummeted, and the myriad species that depend on them have migrated or seen their own numbers dwindle.
Significant northward surges of warm water have happened before, even frequently. El Niño, for example, does this on a predictable basis. But what’s happening this year appears to be something new. Some climate scientists think that the wind shift is linked to the rapid decline in Arctic sea ice over the past few years, which separate research has shown makes weather patterns more likely to get stuck.
A similar shift in the behavior of the jet stream has also contributed to the California drought and severe polar vortex winters in the Northeast over the past two years. An amplified jet-stream pattern has produced an unusual doldrum off the West Coast that’s persisted for most of the past 18 months.
Daniel Swain, a Stanford University meteorologist, has called it the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” — weather patterns just aren’t supposed to last this long.
What’s increasingly uncontroversial among scientists is that in many ecosystems, the impacts of the current off-the-charts temperatures in the North Pacific will linger for years, or longer.
The largest ocean on Earth, the Pacific is exhibiting cyclical variability to greater extremes than other ocean basins. While the North Pacific is currently the most dramatic area of change in the world’s oceans, it’s not alone: Globally, 2014 was a record-setting year for ocean temperatures, and 2015 is on pace to beat it soundly, boosted by the El Niño in the Pacific. Six percent of the world’s reefs could disappear before the end of the decade, perhaps permanently, thanks to warming waters.
Since warmer oceans expand in volume, it’s also leading to a surge in sea-level rise.
One recent study showed a slowdown in Atlantic Ocean currents, perhaps linked to glacial melt from Greenland, that caused a four-inch rise in sea levels along the Northeast coast in just two years, from 2009 to 2010. To be sure, it seems like this sudden and unpredicted surge was only temporary, but scientists who studied the surge estimated it to be a 1-in-850-year event, and it’s been blamed on accelerated beach erosion “almost as significant as some hurricane events.”
Possibly worse than rising ocean temperatures is the acidification of the waters.
Acidification has a direct effect on mollusks and other marine animals with hard outer bodies: A striking study last year showed that, along the West Coast, the shells of tiny snails are already dissolving, with as-yet-unknown consequences on the ecosystem.
One of the study’s authors, Nina Bednaršek, told Science magazine that the snails’ shells, pitted by the acidifying ocean, resembled “cauliflower” or “sandpaper.” A similarly striking study by more than a dozen of the world’s top ocean scientists this July said that the current pace of increasing carbon emissions would force an “effectively irreversible” change on ocean ecosystems during this century. In as little as a decade, the study suggested, chemical changes will rise significantly above background levels in nearly half of the world’s oceans.
“I used to think it was kind of hard to make things in the ocean go extinct,” James Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California told the Seattle Times in 2013. “But this change we’re seeing is happening so fast it’s almost instantaneous.”
Thanks to the pressure we’re putting on the planet’s ecosystem — warming, acidification and good old-fashioned pollution — the oceans are set up for several decades of rapid change. Here’s what could happen next.
The combination of excessive nutrients from agricultural runoff, abnormal wind patterns and the warming oceans is already creating seasonal dead zones in coastal regions when algae blooms suck up most of the available oxygen. The appearance of low-oxygen regions has doubled in frequency every 10 years since 1960 and should continue to grow over the coming decades at an even greater rate.
So far, dead zones have remained mostly close to the coasts, but in the 21st century, deep-ocean dead zones could become common. These low-oxygen regions could gradually expand in size — potentially thousands of miles across — which would force fish, whales, pretty much everything upward. If this were to occur, large sections of the temperate deep oceans would suffer should the oxygen-free layer grow so pronounced that it stratifies, pushing surface ocean warming into overdrive and hindering upwelling of cooler, nutrient-rich deeper water.
Enhanced evaporation from the warmer oceans will create heavier downpours, perhaps destabilizing the root systems of forests, and accelerated runoff will pour more excess nutrients into coastal areas, further enhancing dead zones. In the past year, downpours have broken records in Long Island, Phoenix, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston and Pensacola, Florida.
Evidence for the above scenario comes in large part from our best understanding of what happened 250 million years ago, during the “Great Dying,” when more than 90 percent of all oceanic species perished after a pulse of carbon dioxide and methane from land-based sources began a period of profound climate change.
The conditions that triggered “Great Dying” took hundreds of thousands of years to develop. But humans have been emitting carbon dioxide at a much quicker rate, so the current mass extinction only took 100 years or so to kick-start.
With all these stressors working against it, a hypoxic feedback loop could wind up destroying some of the oceans’ most species-rich ecosystems within our lifetime. A recent study by Sarah Moffitt of the University of California-Davis said it could take the ocean thousands of years to recover. “Looking forward for my kid, people in the future are not going to have the same ocean that I have today,” Moffitt said.
As you might expect, having tickets to the front row of a global environmental catastrophe is taking an increasingly emotional toll on scientists, and in some cases pushing them toward advocacy. Of the two dozen or so scientists I interviewed for this piece, virtually all drifted into apocalyptic language at some point.
For Simone Alin, an oceanographer focusing on ocean acidification at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, the changes she’s seeing hit close to home. The Puget Sound is a natural laboratory for the coming decades of rapid change because its waters are naturally more acidified than most of the world’s marine ecosystems.
The local oyster industry here is already seeing serious impacts from acidifying waters and is going to great lengths to avoid a total collapse. Alin calls oysters, which are non-native, the canary in the coal mine for the Puget Sound: “A canary is also not native to a coal mine, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good indicator of change.”
Though she works on fundamental oceanic changes every day, the Dutkiewicz study on the impending large-scale changes to plankton caught her off-guard: “This was alarming to me because if the basis of the food web changes, then . . . everything could change, right?”
Alin’s frank discussion of the looming oceanic apocalypse is perhaps a product of studying unfathomable change every day. But four years ago, the birth of her twins “heightened the whole issue,” she says. “I was worried enough about these problems before having kids that I maybe wondered whether it was a good idea. Now, it just makes me feel crushed.”
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and evangelical Christian, moved from Canada to Texas with her husband, a pastor, precisely because of its vulnerability to climate change. There, she engages with the evangelical community on science — almost as a missionary would. But she’s already planning her exit strategy: “If we continue on our current pathway, Canada will be home for us long term. But the majority of people don’t have an exit strategy. . . . So that’s who I’m here trying to help.”
James Hansen, the dean of climate scientists, retired from NASA in 2013 to become a climate activist. But for all the gloom of the report he just put his name to, Hansen is actually somewhat hopeful. That’s because he knows that climate change has a straightforward solution: End fossil-fuel use as quickly as possible.
If tomorrow, the leaders of the United States and China would agree to a sufficiently strong, coordinated carbon tax that’s also applied to imports, the rest of the world would have no choice but to sign up. This idea has already been pitched to Congress several times, with tepid bipartisan support.
Even though a carbon tax is probably a long shot, for Hansen, even the slim possibility that bold action like this might happen is enough for him to devote the rest of his life to working to achieve it. On a conference call with reporters in July, Hansen said a potential joint U.S.-China carbon tax is more important than whatever happens at the United Nations climate talks in Paris.
One group Hansen is helping is Our Children’s Trust, a legal advocacy organization that’s filed a number of novel challenges on behalf of minors under the idea that climate change is a violation of intergenerational equity — children, the group argues, are lawfully entitled to inherit a healthy planet.
A separate challenge to U.S. law is being brought by a former EPA scientist arguing that carbon dioxide isn’t just a pollutant (which, under the Clean Air Act, can dissipate on its own), it’s also a toxic substance. In general, these substances have exceptionally long life spans in the environment, cause an unreasonable risk, and therefore require remediation.
In this case, remediation may involve planting vast numbers of trees or restoring wetlands to bury excess carbon underground.
Even if these novel challenges succeed, it will take years before a bend in the curve is noticeable. But maybe that’s enough. When all feels lost, saving a few species will feel like a triumph.
Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-point-of-no-return-climate-change-nightmares-are-already-here-20150805#ixzz3i43OlwBz
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How forces of Occupation Made It Impossible For Palestinians To Score Drugs?
Amazon rainforest: Steady process of cutting it down
In the time it takes to read this email, 16 football fields of Amazon rainforest will be cut down.
There’s a game-changing plan to stop this madness.
The Amazon provides 20% of the world’s oxygen, 10% of our species and is our best defense against climate change.
To save it, Avaaz has joined forces with indigenous communities that call the Amazon home to back the best idea ever: a gigantic international park, the largest reserve in the world, protecting an area twice the size of France!
A million of us have already campaigned for this plan, and the Colombian government now supports it!
We just need to win Brazil.
President Dilma’s popularity is in the toilet, and she desperately needs a crowd pleaser —
Brazilians love the Amazon, so insiders say she could go for it!
To win Dilma over before the powerful ranching and mining lobbyists do, we need to rapidly make this a hugely popular public appeal in Brazil — with inspiring calls from celebrities, compelling ads, and high profile visits from indigenous leaders.
If 50,000 of us donate just the cost of a drink or a meal each in the next 24 hours, we’ll have enough to do it.
Before you join the protesters: #YouStink movement
Desist from all illegal activities
Refrain from steeling electricity and water
Stop pocketing bribes as a civil servant
Reform your behaviors as a law abiding citizens
Who want a legitimate government…
These are fine recommendations, unless the youth movement declare civil disobedience. Then citizens have:
To stop paying taxes that go to the pockets of mafia and militia leaders ruling this defunct system for over 35 years
To change your life style that is permitting this rotten system to get richer from your immoderate consumption
Slow down on driving your cars that guzzle gasoline (one third of the price goes to the State)
Do not patronize public beaches that have been privatized by the militia leaders
Do share the list of life-style changes that should make a dent on the politicians and deep pocket wealthy consciousness