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The Debt We Owe Edward Said

A conversation with biographer Timothy Brennan about the enduring political and intellectual legacy of the Palestinian thinker.

By Kaleem Hawa. MARCH 25, 2021

Edward Said was our prince,” the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif recently said in a conversation reflecting on the Palestinian public intellectual’s life and writings.

An incomparable thinker, Said is credited with founding postcolonial studies, penning histories of cultural representation and “the Other,” and, in so doing, upending the Anglo-American academy.

His Orientalism, published in 1978, is among the most cited books in modern history, by some accounts above Marx’s Capital and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Throughout decades of essays, books, and reviews, Said showed his care for form and the structures of feeling, seeing in their examination a means of understanding music, literature, the world, and Palestine, his home.

Said was a critic, a dandy, a narcissist, a mentor, a polemicist, and a singular wit.

In 1995’s Peace and Its Discontents—the first of his books intended for an Arab audience—Said describes the Oslo Accords as a “degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for what amounted to a suspension of his people’s rights,” shrouded in the “fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance, like a twentieth century Roman empire shepherding two vassal knights through rituals of reconciliation and obeisance.”

The Palestinian leader for decades, Arafat would come to ban Said’s books in the West Bank and Gaza, a result of Said’s early positions in support of the one-state solution and his criticisms of Oslo.

With Ibrahim Abu-Lughod

Edward Said and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, 1986. (Photo by Jean Mohr)

Said’s commitment to the liberation of the Palestinian people made him enemies closer to home as well.

Late in his life, and after the Twin Tower 9/11, Said felt isolated by his American friends and colleagues, as if they had “suddenly discovered they were imperialists after all, and had turned themselves into mouthpieces for the status quo,” as he said in one of his final interviews, filmed by English documentarian Mike Dibb in 2003, just a few months before leukemia would take Said’s life.

After being faced with the capricious nature of American letters, Said found solace among Arabs.

Many who opposed Said’s political commitments to Palestine spent years attempting to tear him down, and those who owe a debt to him as a person and a scholar have had to rely on private conversations and his own enormous œuvre to contest those depictions.

Timothy Brennan, an author and professor who was Said’s former graduate student and a close friend, has attempted to change that with Places of Mind, his biography of Said.

As the reviews of the book have come in, though, it has been dispiriting to see a procession of white writers get Said wrong.

Dwight Garner, in his review for The New York Times, “A Study of Edward Said, One of the Most Interesting Men of His Time,” seems to find every possible thing interesting about Said except his identity as a Palestinian, devoting more lines to Said’s sex life than his views on the liberation of his own people.

This reflects Garner’s paper’s own treatment of Said when he was alive (The New York Times Book Review published Said 10 times, zero times on Palestine) and echoes its consistent overlooking of Palestinian voices—publishing almost 2,500 op-eds on Palestine since 1970, with only 46 authored by Palestinians.

This recent review only furthers something white critics have always misunderstood about Said: In treating his Palestinian identity as a curiosity rather than an animating feature of his life and work, they miss how generative the experiences of the (albeit privileged) colonial subject were to the writing of Orientalism (or BeginningsCovering Islam, and The Question of Palestine, for that matter).

These currents are convincingly traced in Brennan’s intellectual history.

In our conversation, Brennan discusses Said’s literary influences, his relationship to Marxism, his views on the growing movement to boycott Israel, his friendship with anti-war leader Eqbal Ahmed, and his experiences with the New York media.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Kaleem Hawa

KALEEM HAWA: Some people represent Said as a Palestinian academic “with a gentile intellect” rather than an ultimately Western one, whose project is situated within and in response to the Western canon. Do you believe Edward Said was an “Arab intellectual”?

TIMOTHY BRENNAN: This is probably one of the things that changed my mind about the Edward Said that I thought I knew so well.

First meeting him, it is very difficult to think of him as anything other than a British-educated, Ivy League product. And when you talk to some of the people who became Edward’s political enemies over time, they echo this sentiment, saying, “Don’t believe this commitment he has to Palestine. He never once talked about going back home or that he longed to live in the Middle East.”

But while this is a popular way of thinking about Edward, it is not borne out by the record. He took pains to relocate to the Middle East. He systematically apprenticed himself under the intellectuals of the Nahda [Renaissance], like Constantin Zureiq or Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. And I think it was very important to him to establish a direct line of communication with Arab readers and address them as Arabs.

KH: They didn’t always like what he had to say; I am thinking of the criticisms of Said by Marxist Arabs like Mahdi Amel, for instance. On this, the Irish poet Seamus Deane said that Said was not a Marxist, but only if we recognize the wildly different degrees to which one can be not a Marxist. What would you say was Said’s relationship to Marxism?

TB: I think that Edward couldn’t accept Marxism as somebody fighting for Palestinian nationalism because he felt it was an imported ideology that had been largely negative in the forms that it had taken in the Middle East.

He thought that, however correct a program it might be politically, it did not have the attractive force as a political system in the Middle East context to lead to the successful founding of a Palestinian state.

KH: Are you referring to his book Beginnings in which he attempts to map an indigenous Arab culture, politics, and aesthetics, and criticizes Frantz Fanon and Taha Hussein for using the structures of Freud and Marx to fight colonialism, rather than create their own distinctly native culture?

TB: There is also the famous takedown of Marx in Orientalism. And there’s the complaint about certain Marxist movements in Culture and Imperialism.

But let’s not forget that a lot of Said’s close friends and associates were Marxists. He’s as tight as one can be with another intellectual during a formative period of his life with Sadiq al-Azm.

Marxism wasn’t off-putting to him in any way—in fact, there was some competition between him and al-Azm about who could be the worst enfant terrible in the Middle East, and the relationship that he has with Marxism is consistent throughout his life.

There’s evidence of a more generally politically liberal disposition, yes, but Said also acted as an agent for Marxist intellectuals, reminding people of the vital insights that they had brought to political and cultural theory.

His greatest heroes, apart from [Giambattista] Vico—who you could say was proto-Marxist—were Marxists: [György] Lukács, [Theodor] Adorno, [Antonio] Gramsci. A small cast of characters made up this pantheon.

KH: Were there any women in this pantheon?

TB: Yes, Rose Subotnik, a musicologist, and Gillian Rose, a sociologist and Hegel scholar. Susan Buck-Morss first book on Adorno was also an influence.

KH: You didn’t mention Eqbal Ahmad, the anti-war leader and Pakistani intellectual. Said’s FBI file would call Said the unofficial liaison between the US and the Palestine Liberation Organization. This was perceived as radical in American contexts—though it hardly is nowadays—and was in part attributed to Said’s relationship with Ahmad. How did that relationship come to be?

TB: Eqbal was one of the leaders of the American anti-war movement, and he caught Edward’s attention just when Edward was becoming more overtly political following the Palestinian Naksa in 1967. (The defeat of the both the Egyptian and Syrian armies)

Eqbal took a very bold and unpopular step at the time, giving a lecture to militant Arab intellectuals and activists saying that they would not be able to win their fight against Zionism in a military way, that they had to learn about the techniques of persuasion.

This was not where Edward was coming from at the time; he was very attracted to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was the most Marxist of the organizations in the Palestine liberation umbrella groups. Said was thinking in military terms at that point.

KH: It’s interesting because you also say that Said would admire his students and peers who would stand outside of grocery stores collecting signatures against the Vietnam War, but he would never do it himself.

He also famously called the campus police on student protesters when they stormed his class at Columbia. Are we talking about Said’s political failings as aberrations explainable by circumstance, rather than as constitutive of a worldview?

Would he have leafleted if it was for Palestine? Was he just not a leafleteer? How do we explain these contradictions?

TB: There are few reasons I can think of.

First, Edward was an elitist. He grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and did not see himself as being in the trenches.

Secondly, if he’s going to put himself out for a political cause, it’s not going to be the Vietnam War; as much as he despised and was appalled by what the United States was doing in Vietnam, he only had one life to give and one set of energies.

Finally, he thought of the student activists as involved in a sort of middle-class playacting, that they didn’t know what real political danger was. He had seen that danger up close by knowing comrades in Cairo under [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser and comrades in Beirut who were getting assassinated. All those things would militate against him handing out leaflets.

KH: I wonder about the role of intellectuals then as a node in a network between other intellectuals and liberation causes. Said claims to have been the person that introduced Fredric Jameson to Palestine—he organized a trip with Ahmad with the intentions of elevating Palestine to a political issue, not just an academic one for Jameson. What do you know about this trip?

TB: Edward admired Fred and Fred’s intellect but would not identify with Jameson’s Marxism. He thought it was not interested in applying itself to real-world conditions, that it had become a kind of a compensatory philosophy where one could feel ethically pure but not engage with the world.

Edward would say things like, “Jameson, he’s as political as that chair over there.” The trip was to Lebanon, and the goal was to show Western academics what it meant to politically resist Israel.

KH: Sometimes I think what is missing in the Western intellectual is a deeply felt anger. Was Said’s rage real?

TB: He was angry. He was really angry. He would have taken up arms if it would have been the way to achieve victory.

I am absolutely astounded at the prodigious energy that went into his writing about Palestine from so many different angles over so many years.

But also, his political strategies vis-à-vis Palestine and the post-9/11 attacks on freedoms in the United States had everything to do with what he learned from studying literature—there is a direct connection between his patient study of rhetoric and narrative and his belief in the authority that the intellectual has in society.

He would talk about the entire Israeli apparatus of stories that had been brought to the public on a mass basis, like the movie Exodus or the eye patch of Moshe Dayan.

Edward would say that Palestinians didn’t register with the public, that they needed to tell their stories and find a way to mythologize their experiences so that people could identify with it. Essentially, Said’s view of narrative was not just as something that literature professors study in a classroom—it had everything to do with the Palestinian national project.

KH: The audiences for these stories are implicitly Western ones, though. What about Said’s visions for communicating with Arabs?

You describe his essay “Withholding, Avoidance, and Recognition” in Mawaqif, the Beirut magazine, as the first time Said addressed an Arab audience, staking out a sort of Arab pessimism, the very thing that Ghassan Kanafani described as a “masochistic festival of self-disparagement.” What was Said arguing in that essay and why?

TB: It’s an absolutely stunning essay. Said argues that what the Arab intellectual most needs to recognize as lacking in their culture is a theory of mind. In the essay he is attempting to show that the challenge with resisting Western imperialism as an Arab has to do in part with the overemphasis on the Arabic language as a reservoir of beauty and perfection, and that Arabs must work to understand what makes them different, what they most need, what they lack. It’s very political, but it’s also psychoanalytic.

KH: You also write that Said was fascinated with fiction writers he should not have liked. He championed Jonathan Swift instead of anti-colonialist William Blake, and he loved Joseph Conrad rather than his anti-imperialist colleague R. Cunninghame Graham.

You argue that in Conrad’s pessimism and moral darkness, Said could find himself as a relief. But Said also saw similarities, describing himself and Conrad both as “exiles in the imperial world capitals of their time.” Can you talk more about Said’s connection to Conrad?

TB: Edward was attracted to those whose politics he disagreed with. This is clear in his early emulation of [Lebanese nationalist and Phalangist] Charles Malik.

In part, Edward sought to get in the minds of those who in some respects he despised, interested in what would be produced by the friction. But I also think his attraction to Conrad was because Conrad had invented himself, creating fictional masks under his own persona in his works.

Edward really identified with that and wanted that, especially in his abortive attempts at writing a novel. Edward wanted to hide himself, and Conrad doing so gave him ideas about how he might do it.

KH: Said also saw in Conrad a duality that replicated in his personal life. You quote Said saying, “When I was beginning to teach at Columbia…I was really considered two people…the teacher of literature…and this other person who did these quite unspeakable, unmentionable things.”

What were Edward Said’s unspeakable, unmentionable things?

TB: Well, I think they’re largely imaginary. I think what he’s really saying there is that despite his eloquence, despite his success as a professor, people could never get over the fact that he was different, he was slightly off, he was from another part of the world.

It was a feeling of inferiority in his presence because he had a global reach and a cosmopolitan depth that they didn’t have.

They saw this man who spoke Arabic and knew the British Empire from the inside out, having grown up under it—all of those things made him formidable. And so it wasn’t what he was doing, it’s what he was thinking.

KH: I always thought that stuff was kind of libidinal, that it operated at the level of psychosexual distrust for Arab people, à la Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs. Were there any consequences of this attention for Said?

TB: Yes, it was apparent when he arrived in New York City. He was always in love with New York, always felt at home in New York, and that went way back even to childhood.

He gets there and soon he’s established. He’s the darling. He’s handsome. He’s articulate. He’s funny. He writes perfectly for that kind of intellectual crowd. He’s got the cachet of being from Columbia, and he’s from unidentifiable origins, which makes him intriguing.

But then he publishes The Question of Palestine. And the problem with that book for the New York media world was precisely what made it attractive to people like Cyrus Vance and George Shultz:

He could be “reasonable”; he could patiently explain; he had the rhetorical techniques and the evidence to drive his point home. 

He explained too well, and nobody had ever seen anything like it. They felt endangered. They felt that this person could make a case for Palestine that more and more people would accept. So they start to blacklist him.

It was harder for him to publish in The New York Review of Books after that; he only got to publish certain kinds of things. And there’s lots of correspondence with The New York Times Magazine where they say, “Well, we’re interested, but only if you stay away from politics, if you just talk about your childhood.”

KH: On this point, one of Said’s first essays for the London Review of Books was about the journalist’s relationship to power.

He planted a flag for the idea of media criticism. Why?

TB: You could say that Covering Islam was the book that most perfectly embodied the fruits of the media criticism that he was reading in others.

There are writers who precede Said who are writing these really important studies of the media, like Edward Herman and Armand Mattelart.

Said argues that we need to systematically and structurally unpack media bias on the subject of the Middle East. And he brings to it literary critical notions like the problem of representation and the mediation of the news by capitalism.

KH: Yes, but do you believe his critique is always so structural? I think of his essay in the London Review of Books, “Permission to Narrate,” in which he argues that there is a unique standard when it comes to Palestine. Why did he think this?

TB: The Zionist project both objectively is—and Edward was trying to convince people that it was—a genocidal attempt to disarticulate a people, to deny its existence, to prevent it from associating with itself, prevent it from telling its story.

And so anything that would create the impression that there was this people with a history and a heritage that was conscious of itself as a people had to be anathema.

KH:  Did Said ever describe what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinians as genocide?

TB: To my knowledge, no, he never uses that word. It is one that I think would be appropriate myself, but I don’t think that he uses that word.

I think Said would have thought it polarizing among the people he was trying to reach, but then he would write several essays about the complete disarticulation, denial, and elimination of Palestinian collective existence, which fits under the official UN definition of genocide.

KH: In some ways this is an evasion, because the enemies of Palestinian people understand this deeply and police the parameters of which language is reasonable and not reasonable. We are seeing this firsthand with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions [BDS] movement, which Zionist groups have tried to present as something that is not discussed in polite society. I struggle with Said’s position.

TB: Right.

KH: I do want to talk about BDS for a moment.

Said died in 2003 and the BDS movement was founded in 2005. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra program that Said co-founded with Daniel Barenboim [an Israeli citizen] would become the subject of a Palestinian boycott by the cofounder of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti.

Some in Said’s family, like his sister Grace, took issue with the orchestra project because of the ways that it normalized the Israeli state. Nevertheless, she and others have said that Said would have been a supporter of BDS today.

TB: I agree with Grace. Before 2003, Said himself was actively participating in boycotts of Israeli companies.

And he was absolutely livid with close friends and associates at Columbia for not participating in a boycott of any company that was investing in the occupied territories.

He would have probably taken the position, which is BDS position, that the boycott is not a question of individuals but is a question of institutions, and that these institutions should be punished for what they are doing.

KH: You dedicated your book to the Palestinian people. Why?

TB: I guess being around Edward taught me to throw my energy into trying to do something for the cause. He taught me to risk professional censure to take a stand on Palestine.

To me, it’s a litmus test for whether your anti-colonial politics is sincere or not, whether you risk speaking out on behalf of the great injustice done by Zionism to the Palestinian people.

To me, this is one of the biggest ethical questions of our time.

Kaleem Hawa Kaleem Hawa has written about art, film, and literature for the New York Review of BooksThe NationTimes Literary Supplement, and other publications.

Let Them Drown

The Violence of Othering in a Warming World

Edward Said was no tree-hugger. Descended from traders, artisans and professionals, he once described himself as ‘an extreme case of an urban Palestinian whose relationship to the land is basically metaphorical’.[*]

In After the Last Sky, his meditation on the photographs of Jean Mohr, he explored the most intimate aspects of Palestinian lives, from hospitality to sports to home décor.

The tiniest detail – the placing of a picture frame, the defiant posture of a child – provoked a torrent of insight from Said. Yet when confronted with images of Palestinian farmers – tending their flocks, working the fields – the specificity suddenly evaporated.

Which crops were being cultivated? What was the state of the soil?

The availability of water? Nothing was forthcoming. ‘I continue to perceive a population of poor, suffering, occasionally colourful peasants, unchanging and collective,’ Said confessed. This perception was ‘mythic’, he acknowledged – yet it remained.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

Fascinating explanation of the intersectionality of settler colonialism and environmentalism through the lens of Edward Said.

If farming was another world for Said, those who devoted their lives to matters like air and water pollution appear to have inhabited another planet.

Speaking to his colleague Rob Nixon, he once described environmentalism as ‘the indulgence of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause’. But the environmental challenges of the Middle East are impossible to ignore for anyone immersed, as Said was, in its geopolitics.

This is a region intensely vulnerable to heat and water stress, to sea-level rise and to desertification.

A recent paper in Nature Climate Change predicts that, unless we radically lower emissions and lower them fast, large parts of the Middle East will likely ‘experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans’ by the end of this century.

And that’s about as blunt as climate scientists get. Yet environmental issues in the region still tend to be treated as afterthoughts, or luxury causes. The reason is not ignorance, or indifference. It’s just bandwidth.

Climate change is a grave threat but the most frightening impacts are in the medium term. And in the short term, there are always far more pressing threats to contend with: military occupation, air assault, systemic discrimination, embargo. Nothing can compete with that – nor should it attempt to try.

There are other reasons why environmentalism might have looked like a bourgeois playground to Said. The Israeli state has long coated its nation-building project in a green veneer – it was a key part of the Zionist ‘back to the land’ pioneer ethos.

And in this context trees, specifically, have been among the most potent weapons of land grabbing and occupation. It’s not only the countless olive and pistachio trees that have been uprooted to make way for settlements and Israeli-only roads.

It’s also the sprawling pine and eucalyptus forests that have been planted over those orchards, as well as over Palestinian villages, most notoriously by the Jewish National Fund, which, under its slogan ‘Turning the Desert Green’, boasts of having planted 250 million trees in Israel since 1901, many of them non-native to the region.

In publicity materials, the JNF bills itself as just another green NGO, concerned with forest and water management, parks and recreation. It also happens to be the largest private landowner in the state of Israel, and despite a number of complicated legal challenges, it still refuses to lease or sell land to non-Jews.

I grew up in a Jewish community where every occasion – births and deaths, Mother’s Day, bar mitzvahs – was marked with the proud purchase of a JNF tree in the person’s honour.

It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to understand that those feel-good faraway conifers, certificates for which papered the walls of my Montreal elementary school, were not benign – not just something to plant and later hug. In fact these trees are among the most glaring symbols of Israel’s system of official discrimination – the one that must be dismantled if peaceful co-existence is to become possible.

The JNF is an extreme and recent example of what some call ‘green colonialism’. But the phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it unique to Israel. There is a long and painful history in the Americas of beautiful pieces of wilderness being turned into conservation parks – and then that designation being used to prevent Indigenous people from accessing their ancestral territories to hunt and fish, or simply to live. It has happened again and again.

A contemporary version of this phenomenon is the carbon offset. Indigenous people from Brazil to Uganda are finding that some of the most aggressive land grabbing is being done by conservation organisations.

A forest is suddenly rebranded a carbon offset and is put off-limits to its traditional inhabitants. As a result, the carbon offset market has created a whole new class of ‘green’ human rights abuses, with farmers and Indigenous people being physically attacked by park rangers or private security when they try to access these lands.

Said’s comment about tree-huggers should be seen in this context.

And there is more. In the last year of Said’s life, Israel’s so-called ‘separation barrier’ was going up, seizing huge swathes of the West Bank, cutting Palestinian workers off from their jobs, farmers from their fields, patients from hospitals – and brutally dividing families. There was no shortage of reasons to oppose the wall on human rights grounds. Yet at the time, some of the loudest dissenting voices among Israeli Jews were not focused on any of that.

Yehudit Naot, Israel’s then environment minister, was more worried about a report informing her that ‘The separation fence … is harmful to the landscape, the flora and fauna, the ecological corridors and the drainage of the creeks.’ ‘I certainly don’t want to stop or delay the building of the fence,’ she said, but ‘I am disturbed by the environmental damage involved.’

As the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti later observed, Naot’s ‘ministry and the National Parks Protection Authority mounted diligent rescue efforts to save an affected reserve of irises by moving it to an alternative reserve. They’ve also created tiny passages [through the wall] for animals.’

Perhaps this puts the cynicism about the green movement in context. People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles. And yet there is so much of Said’s intellectual legacy that both illuminates and clarifies the underlying causes of the global ecological crisis, so much that points to ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don’t ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty and systemic racism and first ‘save the world’ – but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected, and how the solutions could be too.

In short, Said may have had no time for tree-huggers, but tree-huggers must urgently make time for Said – and for a great many other anti-imperialist, postcolonial thinkers – because without that knowledge, there is no way to understand how we ended up in this dangerous place, or to grasp the transformations required to get us out. So what follows are some thoughts – by no means complete – about what we can learn from reading Said in a warming world.

*

He was and remains among our most achingly eloquent theorists of exile and homesickness – but Said’s homesickness, he always made clear, was for a home that had been so radically altered that it no longer really existed. His position was complex: he fiercely defended the right to return, but never claimed that home was fixed.

What mattered was the principle of respect for all human rights equally and the need for restorative justice to inform our actions and policies. This perspective is deeply relevant in our time of eroding coastlines, of nations disappearing beneath rising seas, of the coral reefs that sustain entire cultures being bleached white, of a balmy Arctic.

This is because the state of longing for a radically altered homeland – a home that may not even exist any longer – is something that is being rapidly, and tragically, globalised.

In March, two major peer-reviewed studies warned that sea-level rise could happen significantly faster than previously believed. One of the authors of the first study was James Hansen – perhaps the most respected climate scientist in the world. He warned that, on our current emissions trajectory, we face the ‘loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s large cities and all their history’ – and not in thousands of years from now but as soon as this century. If we don’t demand radical change we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists.

Said helps us imagine what that might look like as well. He helped to popularise the Arabic word sumud (‘to stay put, to hold on’): that steadfast refusal to leave one’s land despite the most desperate eviction attempts and even when surrounded by continuous danger.

It’s a word most associated with places like Hebron and Gaza, but it could be applied equally today to residents of coastal Louisiana who have raised their homes up on stilts so that they don’t have to evacuate, or to Pacific Islanders whose slogan is ‘We are not drowning. We are fighting.’ In countries like the Marshall Islands and Fiji and Tuvalu, they know that so much sea-level rise is inevitable that their countries likely have no future.

But they refuse just to concern themselves with the logistics of relocation, and wouldn’t even if there were safer countries willing to open their borders – a very big if, since climate refugees aren’t currently recognised under international law. Instead they are actively resisting: blockading Australian coal ships with traditional outrigger canoes, disrupting international climate negotiations with their inconvenient presence, demanding far more aggressive climate action. If there is anything worth celebrating in the Paris Agreement signed in April – and sadly, there isn’t enough – it has come about because of this kind of principled action: climate sumud.

But this only scratches of the surface of what we can learn from reading Said in a warming world. He was, of course, a giant in the study of ‘othering’ – what is described in Orientalism as ‘disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region’.

And once the other has been firmly established, the ground is softened for any transgression: violent expulsion, land theft, occupation, invasion. Because the whole point of othering is that the other doesn’t have the same rights, the same humanity, as those making the distinction. What does this have to do with climate change? Perhaps everything.

We have dangerously warmed our world already, and our governments still refuse to take the actions necessary to halt the trend. There was a time when many had the right to claim ignorance. But for the past three decades, since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created and climate negotiations began, this refusal to lower emissions has been accompanied with full awareness of the dangers. And this kind of recklessness would have been functionally impossible without institutional racism, even if only latent.

It would have been impossible without Orientalism, without all the potent tools on offer that allow the powerful to discount the lives of the less powerful. These tools – of ranking the relative value of humans – are what allow the writing off of entire nations and ancient cultures. And they are what allowed for the digging up of all that carbon to begin with.

*

Fossil fuels aren’t the sole driver of climate change – there is industrial agriculture, and deforestation – but they are the biggest. And the thing about fossil fuels is that they are so inherently dirty and toxic that they require sacrificial people and places: people whose lungs and bodies can be sacrificed to work in the coal mines, people whose lands and water can be sacrificed to open-pit mining and oil spills.

As recently as the 1970s, scientists advising the US government openly referred to certain parts of the country being designated ‘national sacrifice areas’. Think of the mountains of Appalachia, blasted off for coal mining – because so-called ‘mountain top removal’ coal mining is cheaper than digging holes underground.

There must be theories of othering to justify sacrificing an entire geography – theories about the people who lived there being so poor and backward that their lives and culture don’t deserve protection. After all, if you are a ‘hillbilly’, who cares about your hills? Turning all that coal into electricity required another layer of othering too: this time for the urban neighbourhoods next door to the power plants and refineries.

In North America, these are overwhelmingly communities of colour, black and Latino, forced to carry the toxic burden of our collective addiction to fossil fuels, with markedly higher rates of respiratory illnesses and cancers. It was in fights against this kind of ‘environmental racism’ that the climate justice movement was born.

Fossil fuel sacrifice zones dot the globe. Take the Niger Delta, poisoned with an Exxon Valdez-worth of spilled oil every year, a process Ken Saro-Wiwa, before he was murdered by his government, called ‘ecological genocide’. The executions of community leaders, he said, were ‘all for Shell’.

In my country, Canada, the decision to dig up the Alberta tar sands – a particularly heavy form of oil – has required the shredding of treaties with First Nations, treaties signed with the British Crown that guaranteed Indigenous peoples the right to continue to hunt, fish and live traditionally on their ancestral lands.

It required it because these rights are meaningless when the land is desecrated, when the rivers are polluted and the moose and fish are riddled with tumours. And it gets worse: Fort McMurray – the town at the centre of the tar sands boom, where many of the workers live and where much of the money is spent – is currently in an infernal blaze. It’s that hot and that dry. And this has something to do with what is being mined there.

Even without such dramatic events, this kind of resource extraction is a form of violence, because it does so much damage to the land and water that it brings about the end of a way of life, a death of cultures that are inseparable from the land. Severing Indigenous people’s connection to their culture used to be state policy in Canada – imposed through the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families to boarding schools where their language and cultural practices were banned, and where physical and sexual abuse were rampant.

A recent truth and reconciliation report called it ‘cultural genocide’. The trauma associated with these layers of forced separation – from land, from culture, from family – is directly linked to the epidemic of despair ravaging so many First Nations communities today. On a single Saturday night in April, in the community of Attawapiskat – population 2000 – 11 people tried to take their own lives.

Meanwhile, DeBeers runs a diamond mine on the community’s traditional territory; like all extractive projects, it had promised hope and opportunity. ‘Why don’t the people just leave?’, the politicians and pundits ask. But many do. And that departure is linked, in part, to the thousands of Indigenous women in Canada who have been murdered or gone missing, often in big cities.

Press reports rarely make the connection between violence against women and violence against the land – often to extract fossil fuels – but it exists. Every new government comes to power promising a new era of respect for Indigenous rights. They don’t deliver, because Indigenous rights, as defined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, include the right to refuse extractive projects – even when those projects fuel national economic growth.

And that’s a problem because growth is our religion, our way of life. So even Canada’s hunky and charming new prime minister is bound and determined to build new tar sands pipelines, against the express wishes of Indigenous communities who don’t want to risk their water, or participate in the further destabilising of the climate.

Fossil fuels require sacrifice zones: they always have. And you can’t have a system built on sacrificial places and sacrificial people unless intellectual theories that justify their sacrifice exist and persist: from Manifest Destiny to Terra Nullius to Orientalism, from backward hillbillies to backward Indians. We often hear climate change blamed on ‘human nature’, on the inherent greed and short-sightedness of our species.

Or we are told we have altered the earth so much and on such a planetary scale that we are now living in the Anthropocene – the age of humans. These ways of explaining our current circumstances have a very specific, if unspoken meaning: that humans are a single type, that human nature can be essentialised to the traits that created this crisis. In this way, the systems that certain humans created, and other humans powerfully resisted, are completely let off the hook. Capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy – those sorts of system.

Diagnoses like this erase the very existence of human systems that organised life differently: systems that insist that humans must think 7 generations in the future; must be not only good citizens but also good ancestors; must take no more than they need and give back to the land in order to protect and augment the cycles of regeneration.

These systems existed and still exist, but they are erased every time we say that the climate crisis is a crisis of ‘human nature’ and that we are living in the ‘age of man’. And they come under very real attack when megaprojects are built, like the Gualcarque hydroelectric dams in Honduras, a project which, among other things, took the life of the land defender Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in March.

*

Some people insist that it doesn’t have to be this bad. We can clean up resource extraction, we don’t need to do it the way it’s been done in Honduras and the Niger Delta and the Alberta tar sands. Except that we are running out of cheap and easy ways to get at fossil fuels, which is why we have seen the rise of fracking and tar sands extraction in the first place.

This, in turn, is starting to challenge the original Faustian pact of the industrial age: that the heaviest risks would be outsourced, offloaded, onto the other – the periphery abroad and inside our own nations. It’s something that is becoming less and less possible.

Fracking is threatening some of the most picturesque parts of Britain as the sacrifice zone expands, swallowing up all kinds of places that imagined themselves safe. So this isn’t just about gasping at how ugly the tar sands are. It’s about acknowledging that there is no clean, safe, non-toxic way to run an economy powered by fossil fuels. There never was.

There is an avalanche of evidence that there is no peaceful way either. The trouble is structural. Fossil fuels, unlike renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, are not widely distributed but highly concentrated in very specific locations, and those locations have a bad habit of being in other people’s countries. Particularly that most potent and precious of fossil fuels: oil.

This is why the project of Orientalism, of othering Arab and Muslim people, has been the silent partner of our oil dependence from the start – and inextricable, therefore, from the blowback that is climate change.

If nations and peoples are regarded as other – exotic, primitive, bloodthirsty, as Said documented in the 1970s – it is far easier to wage wars and stage coups when they get the crazy idea that they should control their own oil in their own interests. In 1953 it was the British-US collaboration to overthrow the democratically elected government of Muhammad Mossadegh after he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP).

In 2003, exactly fifty years later, it was another UK-US co-production – the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. The reverberations from each intervention continue to jolt our world, as do the reverberations from the successful burning of all that oil. The Middle East is now squeezed in the pincer of violence caused by fossil fuels, on the one hand, and the impact of burning those fossil fuels on the other.

In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting.[†] The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation.

These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line.

Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011.

Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’

The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report.

‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough.

And now certain patterns have become quite clear:

first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict.

*

Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought. And the same capacity for dehumanising the other that justified the bombs and drones is now being trained on these migrants, casting their need for security as a threat to ours, their desperate flight as some sort of invading army.

Tactics refined on the West Bank and in other occupation zones are now making their way to North America and Europe. In selling his wall on the border with Mexico, Donald Trump likes to say: ‘Ask Israel, the wall works.’

Camps are bulldozed in Calais, thousands of people drown in the Mediterranean, and the Australian government detains survivors of wars and despotic regimes in camps on the remote islands of Nauru and Manus.

Conditions are so desperate on Nauru that last month an Iranian migrant died after setting himself on fire to try to draw the world’s attention. Another migrant – a 21-year-old woman from Somalia – set herself on fire a few days later. Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, warns that Australians ‘cannot be misty-eyed about this’ and ‘have to be very clear and determined in our national purpose’. It’s worth bearing Nauru in mind the next time a columnist in a Murdoch paper declares, as Katie Hopkins did last year, that it’s time for Britain ‘to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.’

In another bit of symbolism Nauru is one of the Pacific Islands very vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its residents, after seeing their homes turned into prisons for others, will very possibly have to migrate themselves. Tomorrow’s climate refugees have been recruited into service as today’s prison guards.

We need to understand that what is happening on Nauru, and what is happening to it, are expressions of the same logic. A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat.

When that happens, theories of human hierarchy – that we must take care of our own first – will be marshalled to rationalise these monstrous decisions. We are making this rationalisation already, if only implicitly. Although climate change will ultimately be an existential threat to all of humanity, in the short term we know that it does discriminate, hitting the poor first and worst, whether they are abandoned on the rooftops of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or whether they are among the 36 million who according to the UN are facing hunger due to drought in Southern and East Africa.

*

This is an emergency, a present emergency, not a future one, but we aren’t acting like it. The Paris Agreement commits to keeping warming below 2°c. It’s a target that is beyond reckless. When it was unveiled in Copenhagen in 2009, the African delegates called it ‘a death sentence’. The slogan of several low-lying island nations is ‘1.5 to stay alive’. At the last minute, a clause was added to the Paris Agreement that says countries will pursue ‘efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°c’. Not only is this non-binding but it is a lie: we are making no such efforts.

The governments that made this promise are now pushing for more fracking and more tar sands development – which are utterly incompatible with 2°c, let alone 1.5°c. This is happening because the wealthiest people in the wealthiest countries in the world think they are going to be OK, that someone else is going to eat the biggest risks, that even when climate change turns up on their doorstep, they will be taken care of.

When they’re wrong things get even uglier. We had a vivid glimpse into that future when the floodwaters rose in England last December and January, inundating 16,000 homes. These communities weren’t only dealing with the wettest December on record.

They were also coping with the fact that the government has waged a relentless attack on the public agencies, and the local councils, that are on the front lines of flood defence. So understandably, there were many who wanted to change the subject away from that failure. Why, they asked, is Britain spending so much money on refugees and foreign aid when it should be taking care of its own? ‘Never mind foreign aid,’ we read in the Daily Mail. ‘What about national aid?’ ‘Why,’ a Telegraph editorial demanded, ‘should British taxpayers continue to pay for flood defences abroad when the money is needed here?’ I don’t know – maybe because Britain invented the coal-burning steam engine and has been burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale longer than any nation on Earth? But I digress.

The point is that this could have been a moment to understand that we are all affected by climate change, and must take action together and in solidarity with one another. It wasn’t, because climate change isn’t just about things getting hotter and wetter: under our current economic and political model, it’s about things getting meaner and uglier.

The most important lesson to take from all this is that there is no way to confront the climate crisis as a technocratic problem, in isolation. It must be seen in the context of austerity and privatisation, of colonialism and militarism, and of the various systems of othering needed to sustain them all. The connections and intersections between them are glaring, and yet so often resistance to them is highly compartmentalised.

The anti-austerity people rarely talk about climate change, the climate change people rarely talk about war or occupation. We rarely make the connection between the guns that take black lives on the streets of US cities and in police custody and the much larger forces that annihilate so many black lives on arid land and in precarious boats around the world.

Overcoming these disconnections – strengthening the threads tying together our various issues and movements – is, I would argue, the most pressing task of anyone concerned with social and economic justice. It is the only way to build a counterpower sufficiently robust to win against the forces protecting the highly profitable but increasingly untenable status quo.

Climate change acts as an accelerant to many of our social ills – inequality, wars, racism – but it can also be an accelerant for the opposite, for the forces working for economic and social justice and against militarism. Indeed the climate crisis – by presenting our species with an existential threat and putting us on a firm and unyielding science-based deadline – might just be the catalyst we need to knit together a great many powerful movements, bound together by a belief in the inherent worth and value of all people and united by a rejection of the sacrifice zone mentality, whether it applies to peoples or places.

We face so many overlapping and intersecting crises that we can’t afford to fix them one at a time. We need integrated solutions, solutions that radically bring down emissions, while creating huge numbers of good, unionised jobs and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been most abused and excluded under the current extractive economy.

Said died the year Iraq was invaded, living to see its libraries and museums looted, its oil ministry faithfully guarded. Amid these outrages, he found hope in the global anti-war movement, as well as in new forms of grassroots communication opened up by technology; he noted ‘the existence of alternative communities across the globe, informed by alternative news sources, and keenly aware of the environmental, human rights and libertarian impulses that bind us together in this tiny planet’.

His vision even had a place for tree-huggers. I was reminded of those words recently while I was reading up on England’s floods. Amid all the scapegoating and finger-pointing, I came across a post by a man called Liam Cox. He was upset by the way some in the media were using the disaster to rev up anti-foreigner sentiment, and he said so:

I live in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, one of the worst affected areas hit by the floods. It’s shit, everything has gotten really wet. However … I’m alive. I’m safe. My family are safe. We don’t live in fear. I’m free. There aren’t bullets flying about. There aren’t bombs going off. I’m not being forced to flee my home and I’m not being shunned by the richest country in the world or criticised by its residents.

All you morons vomiting your xenophobia … about how money should only be spent ‘on our own’ need to look at yourselves closely in the mirror. I request you ask yourselves a very important question … Am I a decent and honourable human being? Because home isn’t just the UK, home is everywhere on this planet.

I think that makes for a very fine last word.

Omar Sharif (Michel Shalhoub) passed away, so did all the Lawrence of  fucking Saudi Arabia

While Lawrence of Arabia fans the world over mourned the passing of actor Omar Sharif earlier this week, at least one of his former acquaintances might be spitting on his grave. That is, if he weren’t already dead himself.

Late Edward Said (Palestinian/USA) was classmates with Omar Sharif in Egypt, back when Sharif, whose parents were Syrian and Lebanese, was still called Michel Shalhoub.

As Edward Said recounts in his memoir Out of Place, both attended the elite Victoria College in Cairo, run by the Brits, which was something of an anachronism in Egypt at that time.

Outside the school’s walls, the British colonial mandate was on its way out; they struggled to dominate the Suez Canal against Egyptian guerilla fighters.

Inside the school, non-British students learned British history, spoke English only, and were divided into “houses… which further inculcated and naturalized the ideology of empire,” Said wrote.

For Said, it was an early encounter with the intellectual and social themes he would later dissect in Orientalism.

The British teachers looked down on the Arab students, banned Arabic, and beat them for any minor offense. But young Said defied authority wherever he could – he spoke Arabic with his classmates purely to piss the teachers off and, like a sullen teen, gave ironic answers when called on, “an attitude I regarded as a form of resistance to the British.”

The school was about de-Arabizing the Arabs, and Said was having none of it.

By contrast, you have Said’s classmate Omar Sharif – then Michel Shalhoub. Said describes him as “notorious for his stylish brilliance and his equally stylish and inventive coercive dealings with the smaller boys.” Translation: young Omar Sharif was a well-dressed psychopath.

Sharif was your prototypical brownnoser.

On free dress days, he wore a white carnation in his lapel, while the rest of his classmates were dressed like the scruffy boys they were.

Said describes one episode in which he and another classmate teased Sharif for his clothing, and in response, Sharif nearly broke the classmate’s arm. Why was he doing this, the classmate cried out?

“Because, frankly, I enjoy it,” young Sharif says, like a real psychopath.

Sharif wasn’t just a well-dressed bully, he also sucked up to authority.

When a contingent of important British officials came, he gave what Said describes as a majorly ass-kissing speech about the school’s fantastic British education and how lucky the boys were to be graced by the officials present.

Translation: he was the worst.

To Said, Sharif embodied the school’s “entrenched authoritarianism” – a traitor to his fellow Arabs, and one of the worst things about imperialism – a process Said would later dissect in his most famous work Orientalism.

Not only was the British ideology produced by the ruling classes, it was then reproduced and internalized by the likes of Sharif.

No wonder, then, that Shalhoub later changed his name to something that “Occidentals” would have no trouble remembering, and played the star Arab in one of the most famously Orientalist films of the 20th century, Lawrence of Arabia.

Said says that as a Palestinian man growing up in Egypt following the Nakba, he himself never really fit in wherever he went.

However, he ultimately concludes that it was this constantly feeling “out of place” that inspired his own work. “With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place.”

In his memoir, Edward Said describes one episode in which he and another classmate teased Sharif for his clothing, and in response, Sharif nearly broke the classmate’s arm.

“Why was he doing this?” the classmate cried out.

Edward Said was classmates with Omar Sharif in Egypt, back when Sharif, whose parents were Syrian and Lebanese, was still called Michel Shalhoub.
beirut.com

Beirut Metropolis: Orientalism with a surgical twist

For much of its contemporary history, Beirut has been characterized as the Paris of the Middle East, a cosmopolitan metropolis that misfortune has placed in the middle of a region otherwise hostile to the civilized pleasures of material excess, free-flowing alcohol and exposed female skin.

Beirut’s Parisian charm has tended to become less apparent during periods of mass sectarian slaughter.

In the introduction to his Orientalism, the late US/Palestinian author Edward Said notes repercussions of civil conflict in Lebanon on the European consciousness:

“On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval [18th- and 19th-century French Romantic writers] ‘. This journalist was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” (See link in note 2)

Belen Fernandez published in AlJazeera on Nov. 6, 2012 “Orientalism with a surgical twist: Beirut”

The ‘New York Times’ advertised Beirut as number 1 out of 44 ideal travel destinations in 2009 [Reuters]
Can the representation of Beirut as a “Middle Eastern Paris brimming with wealth” function on behalf of imperialism?
“The civil war may indeed have upset a regional landscape constructed over time by European scholars, poets, travelers and other self-appointed authorities, who, as late Edward Said argues, helped institutionalize Eurocentric prejudice, deny agency to the actual inhabitants of the romanticized exotic lands and thus facilitate imperial and colonial conquest.

The civil war did not, however, halt Orientalist traditions – made quite clear in manuscripts like From Beirut to Jerusalem, unleashed to wide acclaim in 1989 by former New York Times Beirut bureau chief Thomas Friedman.According to Friedman’s account, civil war-era Lebanon was populated by “buxom, Cleopatra-eyed Lebanese girls“, whose presence threw invading Israeli soldiers for a loop:”This was not the Sinai, filled with cross-eyed Bedouins and shoeless Egyptian soldiers“.

That such caricatures were permitted to pass as insight, exposes the delusional nature of Friedman’s subsequent complaint that “a toxic political correctness infected the academic field of Middle Eastern studies“.

Paris revisited 

In recent years, Beirut has reclaimed its image as the Paris of the Middle East, outfitted with expanded shopping opportunities and a spiffy new downtown erected on the former dividing line between the Muslim and Christian halves of the city.

A spate of Times articles about Beirut’s various amenities offers such trivia as that “[i]n a city of many faiths – Christian, Sunni, Shiaa, Druze – at least one religion is universally practiced: sun worship“.

The New York Times has dutifully taken on the role of PR firm for the resurgent Lebanese capital, advertising it as number 1 out of 44 ideal travel destinations in 2009.

Given that the specified temples of worship are high-end beach clubs where “hordes of heliophiles absorb ultraviolet rays and cultivate their bronzed exteriors”, it would seem that said religion is not so universal after all

– either from an economic perspective or one that recognises the incompatibility of certain prominent faiths with public bronzed exterior cultivation.

On the new Zaitunay Bay waterfront promenade, a “luxury playground” where “tablecloths gleam white and bottles of wine sweat in silver coolers”, the Times observes that the boardwalk planks, “a nod to maritime authenticity, present a design flaw perhaps foreseeable in this city: Women with Louis Vuitton handbags are forever extracting their spike heels from the cracks”.

Additional sights at Zaitunay Bay, itself described as “Lebanon’s latest effort to recapture the prewar 1960s – when Brigitte Bardot was a regular and Beirut was a fashionable port of call”, include an Iraqi immigrant in “leather miniskirt, thigh-high boots and a fur vest and whose fire-engine-red lipstick and long yellow hair” would have appeared out-of-place in her native land but “were right at home in Beirut”.

In other Beirut-centric dispatches, the Times raves about gay nightlife and restaurants offering beef and duck flown in from France.

The point of taking issue with such idealised odes to money and fashion is not to deny the affluence that exists in the city or the comparatively liberal nature of its society.

However, the marketing of a Beirut brand of “joie de vivre“, so blatantly equated with material wealth becomes morally problematic when we acknowledge the glaring economic disparity in the country, visible in the capital itself.

Consider, for example, the aesthetic differences between the refurbished downtown and the overcrowded and neglected Palestinian refugee camps and primarily Shia southern suburbs.

In these areas, recent infrastructure projects have included the rampant flattening of apartment blocks by the Israeli air force in 2006.

Needless to say, less sanitary aspects of life in Lebanon – such as the enslaved status of many migrants employed in the domestic help sector – have no place in the portrait of Beirut as a paradise of wealth, where tantalising opportunities await foreign visitors and their pocket-books.

Cleopatra on Botox 

Three decades after Thomas Friedman discovered buxom Cleopatra in Lebanon, another Western voyager by the name of David J Constable has confirmed that the women still “look like Cleopatra”, and that they have acquired new methods for enhancing their appearances – becoming in the process veritable ambulatory showcases for “tucks, lifts, firming, lipo, implants, grafting, tightening, otoplasty, mammoplasty, rhinoplasty and many other physical manipulations”.

A member of the Royal Geographical Society, Constable approaches his anthropological subjects with Orientalist vigour, compiling his findings in a Huffington Post report entitled “Boobs, Botox, and the Babes of Beirut“.

Constable dispatch begins with the curious hypothesis:

“For a largely Arab country it’s a bizarre thing that in Lebanon (Beirut specifically), women care more about their appearance than men.

Males lead a rather sullied existence, priming their closely cut mini-beards and, from my own observations, eating rather a lot.

The formula in Lebanon’s capital for women is fashion-forward, from their choice of cloth to the decisions they make surgically.”

Non-experts on Arab grooming habits might of course be surprised to deduce that men usually spend hours preening in front of the mirror while women mope about in filth.

Undeterred, Constable rumbles on: “Muslim, Christian and Druze women in Beirut dress surprisingly skimpy. There are vests and silks and bikinis and cashmere and come-hither off-the-shoulder numbers.

Constable warns, however, of occasional inauspicious outcomes among operated females: “Some look as if a drunken Picasso has drawn a face on to a balloon”.

In the very least, Picasso’s inebriated doodles attest to the European role in literally shaping the Orient.

Indeed, in 2006, the Israelis were presumably just as pleased as they’d been in 1982:  They discovered that not all Arabs were cross-eyed Bedouins, and Lebanon is still inhabited by bikini-clad plastic surgery recipients (and their slovenly overeating menfolk).

Field notes 

The Orient’s existence as a spectacle for the Westerner to behold and interpret is meanwhile made especially clear during Constable’s expedition to a nightclub “to witness the dolls and their dates myself”.

A power outage interrupts the exotic display but is fortunately resolved:

“The lights slowly raise and the permafixed smiles return. The waxed, toned limbs of party women begin to pop and gyrate again.

They’re back on show, electrified so their surgical enhancements, botoxed-brows and designer names can bounce off my eyes, competing in a variety of silk-cut blouses, Louboutin heels and over-night handbags.

At another rooftop bar, Constable surmises that “there are benefits to marrying/dating/having sex with a plastic surgeon, since surely no one can afford to spend that much of their own cash on reconstructive surgery and blow-me-up operations”. Case closed.

As with the New York Times‘ fixation with Beirut glamour, the effect of essays like Constable’s is to reduce the Lebanese to a superficial existence in which personal concerns are limited to inflating one’s lips and breasts and not getting one’s designer heels stuck in boardwalk planks.

Never mind that many Lebanese are faced with more pressing preoccupations, such as a southern neighbour with a penchant for massacring civilians, upending infrastructure and saturating portions of the country with unexploded cluster bombs to serve as post-conflict population control.

Some may argue that the Times Constable approach is less detrimental than other reductionist portrayals of the country, such as Lebanon equals terrorist den.

These reductionist statements helps propagate an ethnic stereotype that has been exploited to justify more than one imperial project in the Arab/Muslim world.

However, the representation of Beirut as a Middle Eastern Paris brimming with wealth and cleavage – a place the West can relate to on account of its fervent materialism – can also function on behalf of imperialism, eliminating as it does all context legitimizing other aspects of Lebanon’s identity, like resistance to Israeli regional designs.

Note 1: Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Workreleased by Verso in 2011.

She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogAl Akhbar English and many other publications.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Note 2: https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2008/10/12/culture-and-resistance-by-edward-w-said/

Note 3: I think Miss Lebanon of 2012 is the one on the far left, the tall blonde one?

Around the World Social Event Miss Lebanon 2012 In Las Vegas Lebanon

Palestinian perspectives censored on BBC: Why Israeli lies keep broadcasted unchecked…?

Film director Ken Loach of Land and Freedom (about the revolutionaries who fought in the Spanish Civil War that often reflect his keen sense of justice). recently learned that Palestine and Palestinians, and Israel occupation of Palestinian lands, remain taboo for the BBC.Mind you that the BBC is still a publicly funded institution, and any censorship might send the message that the British people agree with its policy lines…

On 23 July, Loach was at the Royal Albert Hall in London to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The orchestra consists of Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians, and is conducted by Daniel Barenboim, who formed the orchestra in 1999 with the late Palestinian academic and activist Edward Said.

Loach was asked during the intermission for an interview by BBC Proms, which was recording the concert for later broadcast.  Lock considered it reasonable to air his thoughts on the nature of the orchestra as well as the music.

Loach said that he spoke to the BBC journalist for five minutes, during which time he said: “Seeing Israelis and Arabs, including Palestinians, sitting side by side on the stage makes us confront the issue of the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people, and I shall be thinking of them when I hear the music tonight.”

The BBC had in the last six months alternately denied the existence of Palestine and then the fact of Israel’s occupation, the mere mention of the fact of the Palestinian people’s oppression was too controversial to broadcast.

Amena Saleem posted on The Electronic Intifada on August 14, 2012:

BBC admits to censorship

Loach received a phone call from the program producers informing him that his interview would be cut “due to the music over-running.” Lock sent an email to the BBC stating:

“Thank you for letting me know about the broadcast and the need to shorten the interview. Of course I understand about length. But I would ask you to include my brief remarks about the orchestra and the Palestinians. As an opponent of oppression and tyranny I think Ludwig [van Beethoven] would have approved. It was one of the reasons I agreed to take part. I’m happy if you need to reduce my thoughts on the music itself.”

His email was ignored and the interview was broadcast three days later on BBC Proms with his observation about the oppression of the Palestinian people removed. The rest of the interview remained intact.

Loach said: “I called the producer, Oliver MacFarlane, who admitted they had deliberately cut the line about Palestine. He said if they’d included it they would have had to have a balancing interview. I wasn’t pleased and I responded robustly.”

When asked to respond to this, a BBC spokesperson stated: “As part of the BBC’s comprehensive music television coverage of The Proms, esteemed filmmaker Ken Loach was invited to comment on his personal passion for Beethoven, given the time slot available and the fact that this was a music television programme, the most editorially relevant sections of Mr. Loach’s interview were used in the final edit.”

Israeli oppression of Palestinians not suitable for broadcast by BBC. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

One of the most obvious examples of bias by the BBC is the taxpayer-funded broadcaster’s habit of inviting Israeli politicians or the Israeli government spokesperson, Mark Regev, onto its programs to speak without challenge.

Palestinians and those who would convey a Palestinian perspective are not given the same opportunity.

Why Israeli spokespersons go unchallenged, and the BBC refuses Palestinian opinions to balance the Israeli interviews?

But if it was the case that the BBC did feel the need to “balance” Loach’s simple words about the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians, it has absolutely no qualms about airing, totally unopposed, the wild, often lurid, mostly fact-free statements made by Israeli ministers and spokespeople.

Take, for example, James Naughtie’s interview with Danny Ayalon on Radio 4’s Today program on 16 January 2012.

The interview was conducted the day after the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, called on Israel to end its occupation of Arab and Palestinian territories and to end its violence against civilians.

This strong UN criticism of Israel was completely ignored by Naughtie, who focused on Iran with the unquestioned premise of the interview being that Iran is, without a doubt, developing nuclear weapons and consequently poses a grave threat to Israel.

Ayalon had been on air for less than a second when he said: “What we see here is a drive, a relentless push by Iran to illegally acquire and develop nuclear weapons and for them it’s not just a means, it’s a way to reach hegemony to continue with their very dangerous and radical approach.”

He went on to say: “Today Iran is the international hub of terror in the world.”

This was clearly Israeli propaganda. ; Ayalon used the BBC to loudly bang the drums of war against Iran. Yet Naughtie neither challenged his unfounded opinions, which were presented as facts, nor brought in someone to present an alternative viewpoint.

Ayalon’s wild accusations, so much more controversial than Loach’s mild remarks, were certainly not cut for lack of a “balancing interview.”

Nor was Ayalon questioned about Israel’s widely suspected nuclear arsenal or about Israel’s staunch refusal to allow international weapons inspections.

BBC’s double standards

Arthur Neslen was a BBC journalist for four years, but this didn’t stop him falling foul of the BBC’s double standards on this issue.

In March this year, he wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper describing how he returned to Gaza to meet the man who had tried to kill him(Khalid)  more than two years earlier (“Why I met the man who tried to kill me,” 2 March 2012).

During Israel’s massacre in Gaza in 2008-2009, Khalid had gone to the front line to ask the Israelis to stop killing civilians. He was captured at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers, handcuffed and blindfolded, taken to the doorway of a house the Israeli army had commandeered, and repeatedly beaten by soldiers on their way in or out.

Khaled was then used as a human shield by Israeli snipers, who placed him in front of an open window and shot from behind him. Khalid was later taken to a detention center in Israel and put through the court system, regularly beaten, before being released back into Gaza two months later.

This article for the Guardian led to a phone call requesting an interview from the producers of Outlook, a BBC World Service program which is broadcast Monday through Thursday.

Neslen agreed, but even before he visited BBC studios, the problems began.

Neslen said: “The BBC kept delaying the interview. Then they called two months later and said they were ready, so I went to do the interview which lasted 45 minutes.”

In his interview, Neslen described how a stranger called “Khalid” (not his real name) had attacked him randomly in a Gaza street in May 2009, pulling a knife on him as he came out of the offices of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

In 2011, Neslen had returned to Gaza to meet the man who had tried to kill him and, in his BBC Outlook interview, he told Khalid’s story.

Before telling his story in the Guardian, Neslen spent a month trying to get an explanation from several Israeli authorities, finally obtaining a statement from the Israeli Ministry of Justice which confirmed the dates of Khalid’s arrest, court appearances and release.

BBC drops story

All this evidence proved insufficient for the BBC.

“The BBC called me after I’d left the interview, asking me to come back straight away. They wanted to know what the Israeli response was to Khalid’s story and I told them about the statement. I was told the interview would go out the following week.”

However, ten minutes before the interview was due to be aired, he received a series of “desperate” emails and calls from a BBC journalist asking to see all his correspondence with the Israeli authorities on the matter, which he emailed over immediately.

“They told me I hadn’t provided them with proof that I had put the allegation to the Israeli army that they had used Khalid as a human shield,” said Neslen. “Then they dropped the story.”

“Why didn’t they put the allegations to the IDF [Israeli army] themselves?” he asked. “I was a BBC journalist for four years and they didn’t believe my story. But if Mark Regev goes on BBC News to say a hunger striker is a member of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the BBC never tries to go to the family to get confirmation. It only seems to go in one direction.”

The UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign wrote to the BBC in May to ask why Regev had been allowed to make unchallenged and false comments on BBC1’s News at 10 and Radio 4’s six-o-clock news bulletin on 11 May.

Regev claimed the Palestinian hunger strikers, who numbered more than 1,000, were motivated by an “Islamist cause” and wanted to “commit suicide.”

Last week, the group received this response from the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit:

“You have said that the report lacked the necessary due impartiality because it contained an interview with the Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, but did not include a similar interview with someone putting forward the view of the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines on Impartiality make it clear that due impartiality does not necessarily require all views and opinions to be covered in equal proportions on all occasions.”

As Neslen says, it only seems to go one way with the BBC. Take this line from the Editorial Guidelines on Impartiality, which the BBC appeared to disregard when interviewing Loach:

“… it is not usually required for an appearance by a politician, or other contributor with partial views, to be balanced on each occasion by those taking a contrary view.”

The BBC seems to interpret this as meaning that someone who openly lies about the political motivations of Palestinian hunger strikers can be heard unchallenged on its airwaves, while someone who dares to mention the oppression of the Palestinians must be silenced.

Bowing to Israeli pressure

Neslen has his own ideas, based on his time at the BBC, for the double standards.

“They’re running scared of the Israeli authorities,” he said. He gives an example, detailed in his book, In Your Eyes a Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian, of the Israeli embassy calling the BBC radio newsroom where he then worked.

The Israel government asked a news editor not to run the Palestinian side of a particular news story, implying that doing so could involve an accusation of “terror collusion.” The Palestinian statement, sent by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to the BBC, was dropped.

On another occasion, at the beginning of “Operation Defensive Shield,” Israel’s massive re-invasion of the West Bank during the second intifada, the Israeli government threatened to close down the BBC’s offices in West Jerusalem if it did not pull its correspondent Barbara Plett out of the West Bank. The next day she was withdrawn.

Nelson said: “These sorts of things happen every day, and some news editors will stand up for core journalistic values. But in general, Palestinian calls of complaints about news bulletins tended to be laughed off. I remember one acting editor on a BBC Radio 5 live bulletin slamming down the phone on a Palestinian caller and saying ‘If I get one more call from a moaning Arab…’”

He added: “If the Israeli embassy phones in, there’s a vast disparity of power [compared] to if a Palestinian activist calls in. They take Israeli calls very seriously, and critical stories about Israel get shot down through official pressure and the fear of official pressure. These are very powerful lobbyists — people know their careers can be broken.”

The result of all this is obvious bias shown against the Palestinians in the BBC’s broadcasts, whether it is by the complete omission of their story, the editing of comments which dare to mention their oppression, or the constant, relentless foisting of the Israeli narrative onto the audience.

Is this really journalism? Those who pay their licence fee so that the BBC can broadcast all across the world — and those whose lives are affected by those broadcasts — deserve much better.

Amena Saleem is active with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK and keeps a close eye on the media’s coverage of Palestine as part of her brief. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza for PSC. Follow the PSC on Twitter: @PSCupdates.


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April 2021
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