Visiting Beirut is always a bitter sweet experience. My last trip to Beirut to attend ArabNet, the region’s first web business conference was my third trip to the city in 8 years, each of which had the duration of 48 hours. Each time I visit beirut I leave with a book, always from Librarie Antoine, my favorite book store in the region.
In 2003 I left with Robert Fisk’s ‘Pity the Nation‘. The second trip, just a month ago, I left with Zeina Maasri’s ‘Off the Wall‘. On the third trip, last week, I left with Samir Kassir’s ‘Being Arab‘.
‘Pity the Nation’ confronted me for the first time with the full extent of the Lebanese civil war of 1976-1990. It drove me to tears as I read Fisk’s detailed account of how that small country’s different groups, including its Palestinian refugees, massacred each other and how Israel and Syria intervened, causing more death and suffering.
‘Off the Wall’ confronted me with the history of political propaganda posters of the civil war, a graphical journey through a violent and crazy time in Lebanon.
Samir Kassir’s book was no less tragic. To start with, Samir Kassir was assassinated with a car bomb in 2005. He was 45 we he was killed. His book is a frontal collision with the current state of Arab culture and its deep seated state of ‘malaise’. It is brutal and honest in describing the tragic state of the Arabs today, starting with the proclamation that they are “the most wretched people in the world today,” not because of their lack of material wealth but because of the seemingly insurmountable state of stagnation they are stuck in.
In Beirut, I was trying to introduce the city to a worldly, first time visitor who was with me at the conference. As a taxi took us through the winding streets from the totally un-Beiruti Al Habtoor hotel, a pink, oversized and kitschy Gulfian monstrosity, to dinner in the amazingly restored, if totally gentrified downtown, I told my colleague that Beirut is a spectacularly failed experiment in Arab Modernity. Failed, because its ongoing embrace of modernity has its negative mirror image in the persistent politics of sectarianism. Chic modernist furniture stores and progressive looking bookstores are side to side with posters that spew sectarian narrow-mindedness. Globalized shopping malls are minutes away from grim neighborhoods dominated by posters depicting grim faced, bearded men.
But Beirut is spectacular nonetheless, precisely because of its enduring spirit of modernity that persists despite its bloody failures.
As our plane was heading back to Amman, I took ‘Being Arab’ out of my bag. I finished almost half of it as we landed and finished the rest of the short volume the day after.
I’ve read my fair share of books on the ‘Arab mind’ and the ‘Arab dilemma’ over the pas twenty years. Many of the themes that Kassir addresses are familiar to me. But this book is unique. As a universalist, secular, humanist writer, Kassir is uncompromising in his confrontation with Islamism and the narrow chauvinism of Pan-Arabism, which he considers part and parcel of what’s wrong with the Arabs.
But he also rejects the essentialist western views of Arab culture as ‘genetically’ flawed, a view increasingly accepted by disillusioned Arab liberals.
Kassir manages to inject hope in this desert of Arab despair by a renewed reading of the Arab Nahda (renaissance) of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. He does not delve into the philosophical recesses of the Arab mind and he does not waste too much time with attempts to marry modernity and tradition. Yet he simply states that the mostly forgotten achievement of the Nahda, despite its eventual failure, are a proof that Arab/Muslim culture is capable of accepting the universal values of modernity in an open spirit of synthesis and innovation. Arab film, literature, music and even politics, where, until 40 years ago, moving in step with global developments. And just as the Nahda and its first, 2nd and 3rd generation of thinkers and artists, were able to transform many aspects of Arab life, there is nothing, philosophically, that prevents this from happening again.
And while Kassir is brutal in his critique of Arab culture, he is also very clear about recognizing that the global balance of power, the Arab world’s geography, its much sought after oil and, finally, the threat presented by Israel are all factors in perpetuating the Arab malaise. A balanced take on things indeed.
Kassir’s views are, of course, controversial. And I am not attempting to dissect the book here. Yet, I found myself intrigued by his ultimate hopefulness. I, like many, might feel a sense of despair at the current state of affairs in the Arab region and often find it hard to believe that change can come from within. But I feel I learned something as the book was drawing to a close: reconnecting to the heritage of Arab modernity and extending is something worth trying.
The last few pages of the book held a surprise for me.
Kassir says that the lack of interface and connection between the culture of creation and the social reality is a big concern. In concrete terms this could be illustrated by the fact that Amman, for example, has a group of really good architects. But if you drive around many of our newer neighborhoods (those build after the effect of the Arab Nahda subsided) you find mostly ugliness. The creators are there but society doesn’t use their creations!
And here is where Kassir’s says we should seek solutions: “In the galvanizing effect that new media can have on cultural development, and that culture in turn can have on durable economic development.”
New media. The internet. Mobile. Satellite.
Which brings us full circle to ArabNet and the dozens of hopeful, young Arab faces, from the lebanese girl who wants to invent a better Arabic web font to the Syrian podacasters covering the conference, to the Saudi guy in dishdasha and tennis shoes who want to start an Arab business-rating site, to the many Jordanian startups who presented their ideas. Maybe Kassir was right. Maybe the future can be created at the intersection of culture and commerce happening in the cloud of new media which knows no Arab borders or limitations.
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