Encountering Followers of Jesus in Beirut

One day, my roommate Dan and I were touring around American University of Beirut as well as the sea front. When we ventured on the way back to our airbnb house, we passed by a bookstore that had an English sign board. I wanted to visit it earlier but always passed it during night time after it closed. This time it was open, so we entered. The decor was very nice and cozy, with a full cafe. Trendy English Christian music played in the background. All the books were related to Christianity. The store also sold decorations as well as stationary imported from China. A math student named Hasan welcomed us and offered us juice with biscuits from a famous western brand. We were a bit hesitant until he said it was his offer. We have clearly underestimated Lebanese hospitality!

Later we met Hiam, who was the person in charge of the place. She had a bespectacled, learned look and a motherly demeanor. Her English accent was quite versatile. When she knew that we were tourists, she warmly recommended some spots for us to tour. Then we moved to a sitting spot to sit down and chat. We learned through her that it was more of a fellowship for followers of Jesus Christ rather than a for-profit bookstore. They had Bible study meetings thrice a week. They also offered us cake from the famous chain Roadster Diner, which was also sent to them for free by some mysterious person. That person sent the desserts in a very passive aggressive way, as a form of apology for some small misunderstanding. Hiam said, "If you are sending the desserts because you think you made us mad, we are really not mad!" But the person still sent the desserts anyways.

Hiam first asked about our story. She asked how we came to decide to come here, since zlebanon was quite "dangerous." I told her I was interested in understanding the society after hearing about the cartoon incident.  She was especially intrigued by Dan, who was half-Syrian and half-British and could speak phrases in Arabic. He was also studying French and Deutsch, so they conversed in French as well. She praised that some people just have a knack for languages, such as her nephew who learned Mandarin, Turkish and Russian in addition to the regular three. She requested to see a picture of Dan's Syrian mother. But he said his mother didn't have a picture. Hiam exclaimed that his mother is quite extreme on the religious front. Hiam mixed some Arabic phrases in her speech and had a very chic dressing style. She is teaches Arabic as a private teacher for foreigners who live in Beirut.  I learned that she has no kids. I said that it is quite fortunate since she would have fewer problems. She said that problems do not come from children or marriage. Happy people find happiness with or without marriage. But she also frowned down upon divorce when she heard that Dan's parents divorced; she did not cite theological reasons. Rather, she finds that two people who have lived together for a long time would find it very difficult to separate and the general outcome is not a good. Her way of talking about the faith reminded me a lot of the people I had met in the US. 

Other tha Hasan, there were many others also helping around the store. One woman, who I will call Jane, shared with us her conversion story. It seemed that she was already from a Christian family from her name, but Jesus Christ did not have the same role in her life until she was healed from a jaw-lock in the recent years. All her close relatives had died from various reasons and she was the only one. Hiam said that she walked through many dark phases in her life. Hiam said that the beggars who usually said "Bless your parents" or "uncle" in idiomatic Arabic did not have anyone to bless when they encountered Jane. One beggar even offered to give her money instead when they heard about her story. Jane was painting a very nice painting with a cross on it. She later played the piano very well and also played crazy, improvised tunes for the fun of it. Her entire demeanor was very jolly, so it was even more intense when she did not smile and looked intently at Dan throughout the story of meeting Jesus Christ, as if that could push him towards conversion in some way. Jane and Hiam had a very casual and close relationship. Hiam used the phrase "Ma too zghale" to ask Jane for a favor and explained to me that it means "Don't be made small".

Hiam also shared the story of a Lebanese man with a Shi'a name in the store, whom I will call D. D was homeless when an Ethiopian maid found him. He was considering suicide. But the maid told him about Jesus's love and introduced him to Hiam's brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law met up with him every day to study and talk about things unrelated to "the street." Hiam said that his mother tried to kill him, which was the main reason for his mental instability and homelessness. She emphasized how unusual it was in Lebanese society to be homeless, since family ties are really strong. (I was a bit skeptical about this claim but had no way to figure out the truth of it.) Both Dan and I listened but later we both found it odd that she was sharing this story with us without D's consent or involvement. He wore casual western clothes, looked around 26 years old and shyly hung around without doing much work related to the store. According to the story, Hiam considered to take him in, since there was room in her place. But she was a single person living with her mother at the time, and she said that the neighbors would talk if they took in a single male. She said that as a follower of Jesus Christ, she could not let people of Beirut think about her religion in the wrong way: "I can't talk about Jesus and do something against our Culture. people don't think nicely." Since he has found a place, he has been coming to the book shop for the past 6 months.

They closed the shop around 8:30. After unexpectedly spending around two hours there, Dan and I left with the others. Hiam said that we should come by again to volunteer or study, and we said sure. I later visited again to introduce my friend Morgana to the project. They didn't seem like they needed extra hands, so I didn't go as a volunteer. Dan brought his brother the next time he went and they also just talked about Jesus. Still, it was quite eye opening to see how some Christians with the evangelical streak are similar in this vastly different part the world. 


A Visit to the Hizbollah Museum

 I first heard of this museum from a former airbnb roommate. Our host jibed at him for paying 4000LL as well as some souvenir money to Hizbollah, which he despised. The roommate also noted how the guide he met there personally hated Israel, which surprised him a lot. Our host said, they are the worst neighbors. The conversation piqued me interest as well. 

My friend Morgana and I met at the Saifi Institute's Arabic class. She is from Peru and studies a degree related to law and humanitarianism. She is researching on Syrian refugees in Lebanon and was also interested in checking out the place. On July 29th, which was my last Saturday in Lebanon, we decided to visit the South, namely Saida and the town that hosts the famous Hizbollah museum.

We met up at 10AM, close to our institute, took a cab from downtown to the main long-distance bus station for South Lebanon. We only knew the name of where we were supposed to stop, namely a bridge, and relied on the other passengers to notify the moment we should descend.

We were extremely under-prepared and mostly relied on the local people to guide us to the museum. I did little research about the place. We learned mostly on the way, about the surroundings and the relation between the museum and the environs. It is known by many names: The Museum of Resistance, the Mleeta Tourist Landmark, but mostly we used the term "Hizbollah Museum" when asking for directions.

Why did we need to ask for so many directions? It was because the cab driver tried to charge us a lot for the cab fare. He said 2000 LL when in reality he meant 20,000. But by that time we were already 1/3 through the journey. He was praising Peru and China for having very good people and telling us his life story about his years in Australia and divorcing a Turkish wife back there. Then he asked if he wanted him to wait for us to drive us on the way back down. Morgana said that she would probably need 90 minutes in the museum. The driver said that 1 hour is sufficient. Then he said it would cost 40,000 LL both ways. We were shocked and decided to give him 8000 and leave the cab on the road. 
After leaving the cab, we asked a truck driver Hassan how to get up to the Hizbollah museum. He chuckled and wrote down the town name for us on the Manaoosh (Lebanese pizza) paper wrap, in case we had to ask someone else. Then he said with good humor that it would take us 1 hour to reach there by walking. We said thanks and kept on walking. A few minutes later, he drove to us with his truck and his assistant hanging on the back of the truck, telling us to get on and offering to take us to the next bus stop. We catched up to a bus and we were tailing it. Hassan tried to stop it from his position by honking.  It took the bus around 5 minutes to stop and we finally got the bus driver's attention. We took a bus up a few more steps, but then it dropped us off and took another turn to some other town. The driver was considerate enough not to charge us the fare, since we did not reach our destination. The bus route reflects that the people in the area do not visit this museum. After the bus dropped us off, I took a small detour to check out the scenic town. It reminded us of Bcharre, which was north of Beirut and the hometown of writer Khalil Gibran. We bought water there and washed some peaches. Someone offered us drinks inside but we decided to press on.

We stubbornly walked the last 4 km uphill... We later learned that it's far up because the Hizbollah fighters were fighting for it against the Israelis who occupied it during the war. 

The up side was that we had a full view of the scene as well as unique positions for the cool stuff on the way, such as these flags being placed side by side. But I definitely would not do it again. Morgana was also exclaiming: No wonder the driver wanted to charge 20,000LL!

Seeing the museum from afar

"Who comes to this museum?? Definitely only people with cars!" I complained...

We saw something protruding from the museum area for quite a while, and it was our point of reference for hiking upwards. It looked like a tank, but we found out later that it wasn't--it was a lookout point that was never detected by the Israelis during the late 1980s until Hizbollah decided to unveil it. Sometimes it was no longer in sight. When we finally made it up there, we were exhausted. We paid for our tickets at the door. The person said we should find someone with the museum logo on his shirt for an explanation of the museum layout. We found one who was tall, in his middle-age years and wore a cap and shades. He introduced the place with great confidence and experience. He said we can come back to him for any further questions. 

I did not have very high expectations even though we traversed a long distance to reach the place. I was expecting a dingy dark building, like the Stasi museum in Leipzig. But museum was very informative and well-researched.

What surprised me most was that the design of the metaphors was very well thought out. The Israelis are represented by the deserted objects. "Attractive landscaping surrounds 'The Abyss,' full of booty apparently left behind in southern Lebanon after Israel's withdrawal in 2000, and after the 33-day July War in 2006." In addition to the political context, the scenery was also very nice. It seemed that many Lebanese tourists come for the view as well as for the educational value. I also was really surprised when we toured the well-equipped, "180-m tunnel leading to an operations bunker." A soldier was standing on guard at the entrance. But I later read that their presence in the museum had lessened since it first opened.

First time seeing spy equipment

Here is a description of the history reproduced by The Velvet Rocket post about the museum:
On April 3rd, 1985, the Israeli army retreated from Mount Lebanon and the villages and cities of the southern coast to an area that extends from Haasbayah and Mount Sheikh in the east, to Naqoura coastal town in the west, planting hilltops and mountaintops with dozens of fortified outposts and barracks. Soon afterwards, the resistance militants followed the enemy to its bases, to initiate the “war of bases”. From 1985 and over a period of 15 years, the resistance took Mleeta and other mountains and valleys as their strongholds, in defiance of the enemy.
So in that sense, Hizbollah is truly modern: it engaged in a war or multiple wars, in which many pauses and confusion happened in between. The result is that the history is difficult to write. 

These objects from Israeli soldiers containing Hebrew text remind me of how disconnected the two countries Lebanon and Israel are even though they are right next door. Many ancient Mediterranean trade connections were severed since the rise of the nation state.

Morgana reminisced about the time when she and her classmates were trained to be "kidnapped" in Poland for the purpose of becoming bona fide humanitarian workers. I was shocked that they had to go through that process. Later we discussed the Syrian War when we finished touring the bunker. She had the opinion that peace should be achieved in an ideal situation and only then can the Syrian society start to rebuild. I said that even in times of so-called peace, there is hegemony and oppression. I gave her the example of Gandhi and the Congress movement: even though it achieved independence for India through a peaceful movement, it also allowed for upper castes to maintain hegemony for decades. I also said that party politics happens even during times of war, i.e. how Mao built the Chinese Communist Party even when it was engaged in civil war with the Kuomintang. Similarly, FARC was trying to do that in Columbia, although with less success. Although we could have had this discussion elsewhere, we were rather exhausted to keep moving.

Later we had a very interesting political discussion with the tour guide who initially introduced us to the place. He knew about our Arabic program and said many other students from the program have visited before. Morgana asked him about the relationship between Lebanon and Palestine. He gave us a concise history: The Arab league funded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to fight Israel. Israel did not like it and bombed Lebanon; it reached Beirut in 6 days. Then all sides fought. The PLO left Lebanon and went to Iraq and other Arab countries. But the Palestinian refugees stayed. But Israel continued to use Palestine as a reason for interfering in Lebanon. The Israelis still influenced Lebanese politics through the Phalangist party. They manipulated the politics which resulted in the election of a PM who was from that party. Speaking of the present, he said, "Some Palestinians are involved with ISIS. This is no secret." Then Morgana asked him about Syrian refugees. He said without blinking an eye, "We don't have anything to do with Syrian refugees. We are just observing them for any activity. Any conflict is between the state and the refugees." I was surprised by the shrewd reaction from him. During that week, Hizbollah was conducting military campaign against SIS in the Lebanese town Arsal that borders Syria. They claimed that there are many ISIS militants hiding in the refugee camps. At the same time, Hizbollah also burned down areas of the camps illegally and Syrian men have died in military custody. (See this article for more details about the anti-refugee violence in Arsal.) He later was pretty nervous and decidedly changed the topic to our background and the usual meet-a-tourist talk (e.g. how China is a great country).

Morgana and I didn't really have a way to go back down. We asked a bus driver Moustafa up in the parking lot on the mountains if we could take a lift down to a town. Even though he was on duty waiting for other people, he still took us down to an intersection. On the way down he asked in Arabic about our situation and our future plans. We communicated haltingly. He chided us that we have been here for a month while learning Arabic and we still only know "shway shway!" (Meaning: a little bit) In my defense we were living in Beirut, where people spoke English very well. He left us his number in case we had any problems. Then we waited on the road for a while, until a service taxi took us to the point where we could get another service taxi. We then proceeded to tour the ancient port city Saida, which deserves another post. 

Overall, although the museum is a semblance of violence, it is not entirely a celebration of it. It shows the labor and the efforts of war in a sobering manner. There is room for reflection and contemplation for the visitors. One can disagree with Hizbollah's party politics, such as its slow disarmament process and condemn its support of the Syrian Asad regime, but at the same time it is also important to value the cultural memory of the resistance in terms of actual people with families and ties to the area. Politics often hides more violence, while this museum looks at violence and death as a necessity for survival, however grim that survival is.

For more information about this controversial museum, this is a good article: 

Hezbollah museum: Shrine to resistance or a dying image?


Identities in Beirut: Who is an Arab?

Overlooking the street in Hamra from the balcony of where I lived
During my one-month stay in Beirut, I mostly walked and took the bus to the Arabic language institute Saifi in the area called Gemmayze. I lived in Hamra, which is towards the west side of the city. Although they are only three miles apart, they are vastly different. Gemmayze is an art district frequented by hipsters and fashionably-dressed tourists at day and party-goers at night. While Hamra is also known for its party-goers and tourists, the European / white Americans are less conspicuous. More locals patronize Hamra, which has also been known for its historical cafe culture. More pan-handlers are also visible in Hamra. It is also much more hustling and bustling throughout the day and night. In between these two areas, I would cross by heavily guarded Christian churches, poorer Shi'i neighborhoods, as well as the heavily gentrified / reconstructed Downtown area. 
Houses of a poor Shi'i neighborhood

Through traveling from the West to the East side of Beirut almost every day, I picked up many markers of gender, class, and sects in the urban spaces. While the class differences and high level of commercialized property in Beirut were more obvious to me, symbols of sects and discourses surrounding identity also came to me through my walks or chance-encounters. This is one of the experiences I have encountered; it is significant not only because the conversation was related to identity, but also because it was one of the few times the interlocutor was extremely vocal in regards to politics. I will write at least two more, featuring a Christian book shop in Hamra and a friend who lives in Dahiya.


On my last day in Beirut, I ordered an Uber car for my trip to the airport. Dani accepted my request and drove up in a rather large car. He could not help me move the luggage from upstairs, since he could not leave the car unattended, but he helped me load it in the car. I was very flustered because I packed most of the things last-minute and was drenched in sweat. I was also worried about the cab fare's payment option, since I was not very familiar with the Uber app. (The last time I used it was in eight months ago.) The east-bound traffic was also terrible. Dani noticed my stress and he was very eager to divert my attention to other things. He offered me water and mints and told me that even if the payment doesn't go through, things will be alright. I noticed that there was a wooden cross hanging at the rear view mirror as soon as I entered the car, and picked up that he was probably a Christian.

He could speak some sentences in English, such as praising the flavor of the mints or informing me the adequate time one should arrive at the airport for an international flight (3 hours, according to him, although later I found out that nobody really does that). I also used some Arabic that I learned over the summer course.  I learned that he is 42 years old and lives about 20 minutes away from Beirut (Either in the town of "Baouchriyeh" or "Bacha"). For more complicated conversations, we relied on the Google translate audio function on his phone, which was surprisingly accurate. Somehow he knew that I was in a very reflective period of my life. He told me in a heart-felt and philosophical manner that happiness is most important thing. "Money is not important. If you have a loving family and a house of your own, you will be happy," showed Google translate. He was curious about my deal in Beirut as well. At one point he asked me if I work for the US government (in a totally calm and natural way). I knew that many Americans in the region probably work for the government, so I said no without thinking too much about it. Then he asked, Why are you studying Arabic? I tried to express my interest in politics and history. He was even ready to settle for the seemingly unsatisfactory answer.  Then I landed on "hab"(which i wanted to use for a special interest in  cultures) but then he understood it as love in general. I also accepted at that point of the difficult conversation that the reason can be explained as for love. I said I have an Iraqi friend. 

"Have you been to Iraq?"

"Not yet. Will go some day."

I said that Beirut does not seem to be a very happy place. He did not disagree outright, but explained it through economic terms. He said that Lebanon has a lot of money. Some people have jobs and money, some people don't have money. Some people work a lot, and have three jobs. 

He complimented US society because it is the dream for a lot of people and is the land of opportunity. I did not know how to explain to him the various issues of race and economic inequality, so I just nodded along. 

Then he started to talk about how the politicians in Lebanon are corrupt. He said that Lebanon is using a multi-denominational system. There is no accountability because of this arrangement. I said that there will be a new constitution next year, so hopefully things will change then. He said that if they apply constitution, Lebanon would be the most beautiful country in the world. (In my opinion, it is already very beautiful, but I thought it is always nice to aspire to more as a public citizen, so I didn't say anything.) He also pointed out later that there is trash littered on the road to the airport and it hurts him to see it as such.

Then the conversation took a surprising turn. He started blaming Arabs. He said that 90 percent of Arabs are bad. I asked, are you not an Arab? He said, I am Phoenician (Fini). I did not need Google translate for this identity marker.  I already knew about the politicization of the ethnic marker Phoenician and it was also featured during a Father-Son dialogue in the film West Beirut. (It was also strangely similar--they started discussing problems of Lebanon and how the Arab world has made it worse, to which the son decidedly distances himself by declaring that he is Phoenician.) The last time I asked this question related to the Arab ethnicity was during the start of my Lebanon trip. A friend of my host, who I will call W, was giving me a concise version of his view of Arab historiography. His politics of Arab nationalism, which included a union of Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, stemmed from his view of history. At one point I asked, if everyone is "Arab", then why different languages exist? And are you an Arab? W said that different groups of people decided to adopt the language, and that those who did adopt the language "became" Arab, like he did. The ironic thing was that he was a light-skinned ginger who has emigrated to Italy and often passes as an Italian.

Back to the cab ride. Dani proceeded to say something that astonished me so much I could only laugh: "The Arab was created to sleep." Google translate wrote. I was kind of confused until he clarified with gestures that he meant--Arabs were created to eat and sleep. He explained that Arabs take things for granted: "Thank you China, thank you Japan. Without the west we would only be on horses. No cars, no nothing (Ma fi shi)." I did not say much to that, because it was the first time someone was so honest to me about this issue. Later he helped me exchange my remaining Lebanese pounds to dollars, we arrived at the airport and I shook his hands goodbye. Behind this sentiment is a lot of colonial baggage (akin to intellectual and dissident Liu Xiaobo's statement that China should be colonized for societal progress) and also reveals the trend in which many Lebanese Christians have emigrated abroad. I am still confused how someone like Dani could be so attuned to societal problems and care for its betterment yet still come to simplistic conclusions. It is far too simple to say that Dani is "racist" or pro-Western: at least he has chosen to stay in Lebanon. He could see that religion is not only a practice but also an institution, since he knows that the multidenominational institutions in Lebanon systematically separate the people into groups so that the elites can divide the spoils. These were the same sentiments expressed during the 2015 "You Stink!" protests against the corruption of the Lebanese government. (Read more about the antagonistic relationship between sectarianism and government reform from the chapter "The Architecture of Sectarianization in Lebanon" by Bassel Salloukh in SectarianizationStill, I am hopeful that behind contradictory notions, there is also hope. 


Towards a Non-State Centric Understanding of Iraqi History

While reading historian Eric Davis's Memories of the State, I came across his description about how the British colonizers favored a compliant chess piece, Faisel II, and his regent, Prince Abdullah among the successors for the Hashemite royal family in the mid-1930s. Davis argued that the compliant Prince saw that the British could help him stay in power, and thus allowed for more British interference in Iraq.

Book cover
This description struck me because it seemed that the state harbors a magical "seat" where the person who manages to sit in that place, would become more invincible than other political actors. Thus generations compete for power at the magical seat, which replicates the preexisting organs and arrangements of the state, including colonialism arrangements such as the British mandate. It does not seem to be that much different from a pre-French revolution "monarchy," even though it is clear that the 20th century Hashemite monarchy was anything like it. While Davis is aware of the differences and impact of colonial designs on the Hashemite monarchy, he still presumes a rather monolithic, state-centered narrative in the unravelling of the Hashemite monarchy for his readers.

The implicit question seems to be the age-old one: How can a "modern historical account" explain how an "Oriental despotic regime" becomes a "modern state," which has institutions providing checks and balances?

But this frame seems to be exactly the problem. The frame assumes that everyone is power-hungry as rational decision makers, and thus would definitely seize the opportunity to enter the power vacuum when available. In the Iraqi case, the colonialists could presumably offer anyone that magical seat, and anyone would capitulate. Even idealists such as leftists and nationalists might squander the opportunity during the power machination process. At the same time, states are also in competition with each other, and thus, they would all have to maintain internal stability to "get ahead" in the race. In Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, scholar Vijay Prashad has also noted how "regional stability" is also a key code word for U.S. foreign policy decisions in the Middle East. In this sense, one could see how there are people who support a state-centered narrative (including a wide range of people from U.S. foreign policy heads to certain Ba'athists and Communists), and those who would differ.

Rather than state-centered narratives, I find Foucault's conception of power more nuanced in order to understand these processes. He critiques the idea of power as a magical seat in Society Must Be Defended (p13):
In the case of the classic juridical theory of power, power is regarded as a right which can be  possessed in the way one possesses a commodity, and which can therefore be transferred or alienated, either completely or partly, through  a juridical act or  an act that founds a right—it does not matter which,  for the  moment—thanks to the surrender of something or thanks to a contract. Power is the concrete  power that any individual can hold, and which he can surrender, either as  a  whole or in  part, so  as to constitute a power or a political sovereignty. 

Under the Iraqi state's eyes, "Communists," "Shias," "minorities,"and "women" are separate categories. Davis takes cue from Gramsci in his formulation of the state and anti-state resistance. While Davis's book emphasized that there had been functioning political institutions and democratic activity in Iraq in 1954 and complicates a despotic stereotype of pre-1960s Iraq, his state-centric understanding of power is still limiting and replicates these monolithic categories of women, Shias, minorities and communists. Similarly, the good-intentioned policymakers have made and would continue to make the same mistake while navigating through ethnic loyalties and political affiliations of Iraq if they continue to view society from a state-centric vantage point.

Rather than staring at the magical seat, we should pay more attention to where the power projects itself toward and how it is embodied. Foucault also admits that there are not so many methods outside of this model to understand power. One can read more about that in his lectures. While recognizing the Iraqi Left-leaning intellectuals' enormous contribution in historicizing sectarianism, documenting "voices from below" and analyzing class formation in Iraq, I would also like to see more Foucauldian or non-state-centric analyses of Iraqi history.

Overall, the mainland Chinese academia also suffers from obsession with state-centric narratives. They are also using the same paradigms to understand the outside world as well. That is why I find studies on the effects of colonialism so curative to the current academic obsession. As Timothy Mitchell as written in 1991 in the article "The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics," "Political subjects and their modes of resistance are formed as much within the organizational terrain we call the state, rather than in some wholly exterior social space." This understanding would also become beneficial to critiquing and resisting the communist government: currently many dissidents cannot formulate a strong response to the assumption that "without the communist government, China will surely become chaotic." This assumption similarly uses the overempowering ideal of a sovereign that keeps things in check: Without that sovereign, any opportunist will seize the magical seat. To have any meaningful resistance against the increasingly prevelant communist state, dissidents and resisters have to undo this understanding of the magical seat.


Social Relations and Sexual Assault

Yesterday a scholar came from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to speak on her research work on sex workers of Bombay. Her main concern is that most legal and policy discourses do not take into account the differences in terms they use and the terms the sex workers use. For example, a daily wage laborer who may have been engaging in sex work as well would use the term majburi to describe her undesirable circumstances. A Dalit man Muku also used the same word majburi for moving after a drought in his Maharastrian village. This term is best translated as having to do something under constraint, but even that for the scholar is unsatisfactory and disempowering. Policymakers would usually use the words like "forced" for majburi, e.g., someone was forced to engage in sex work. She finds that this translation reduces the legitimacy of their means of liveligood, which includes sex work. She also finds issue with the liberal paradigm of sex as individual expression and, rather than something socially mediated. She also proposed that there is a strong overlap of sexual labor and daily wage labor for these lower-classed, lower-caste people. She brings up the issue of caste, such as hijras are not only a community seen in a sexually charged manner, but also through caste lenses; but I found the caste issue to have been more of an auxiliary to the talk as a whole. I would have been more keen on understanding how caste is reflected in such an urban sexual economy. The talk garnered a lot of attention and much discussion. Most questions were thinking about how one could link the ethnography with the center questions. I also asked a question about how to think about these undisciplined sexualities in general, since intercaste marriages in India are also punished for breaching the dominant regulation of a casteist sexual economy. I did not get a satisfactory answer.

This post will be discussing another incident related to the idea of ambiguity and sexual relations bounded by social processes. I was exchanging in Delhi at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2015. I befriended A.S. at the Brahmaputra Hostel, where I went to eat most of the time. Like most people staying at this Hostel, he was a PhD student. Towards the end of the semester, I had the opportunity to travel with him to Gwalior. We stayed overnight in separate accommodations. It was a nice trip overall, with some hiccups in between. We had to wait for several hours due to some planning errors outside of the Gwalior Fort. During this time he mentioned to me about a Lucknow girl who he claimed to be madly in love with. He said that she did not love him as much. We even had beers in a restaurant, which is rather unusual given the relatively conservative environment of the city. At the train station, I bought the memoir Lucknow Boy written by Vinod Mehta, while A.S. continued to reminisce about “his” Lucknow girl. We also played the game of Antakshari (a South Asian spoken parlor game played with song verses) while waiting in the train station. We arrived in Delhi around 5AM, and it was relatively cold. He suggested for me to stay at his hostel for some time, but I refused. We remained on good terms afterwards. I also hosted my birthday party in December in his room, in which he was invited. After the party, he expressed interest in one of my friends who attended as well, to which I downplayed since I thought they would probably not be suitable as a couple. 

A month later I finished my semester. He helped me handle some of my luggage on the last day before I returned to Germany in 2016. He received the opportunity to exchange on scholarship in an Eastern European country, and left for said country in March, but we did not meet. 

Last year, September 27th, I was in the U.S. and recounted the memories of traveling in Gwalior to another friend of mine on Wechat. Then coincidentally, some news about A.S. popped up on my facebook timeline. It was a link reporting sexual assault charges against him. The victim said that he promised he would marry her, which he did not. I automatically assumed that this was the Lucknow girl he used to speak so often about (I was wrong. I searched for this news again today, which has been either cleaned from Google or swamped by other more controversial cases of sexual assault that have since been unfolding. But I did manage to find a link to a news report and in that report, it is said that this girl studied at Delhi University. Only then did I realize I had wrongly assumed the identity of the victim for the nine months.). An Eastern European friend of A.S. had shared the link and defended A.S. against the news. The friend personally vouched that A.S. is a good person and would never do such a thing. This was during the time when JNU had experienced much attack from a biased news media, so I was very skeptical of this report and defensive as well. I discussed this issue with my mom in the same manner and stressed that perhaps it was because of his changed circumstances that severely affected his relation with the Lucknow girl, and this claim was being subsequently being made against him.

My mom thought that such incidents often happen under an environment where people become upward mobile in a short period of time. According to her analysis, the woman would want to share some glory with the successful man who had the ability to go abroad. When she does not get what she wants, she resorts to claims of sexual assault or rape. My mother thought that when it comes down to cases of sexual assault, it is a game of he-said, she-said: the outcome largely depends on the clout of each party involved. If the man has more social and legal resources, then the girl would usually “lose,” regardless of what actually happened. 

The matter stayed in my mind for some time and I gradually forgot about it. When I visited JNU again this year in March, I was again confronted with more details about this case. I met up with Sardarji, who is an affable and popular guard at the university and a true friend of mine. He had met A.S. on two separate occasions with me as well. A.S. and I were once invited to eat handmade makki ki roti (unleavened Punjabi bread made from corn flour) at Sardarji’s home across the road from the University. We had a really good time eating and talking about how the University is often a social force of its own that defends its turf against the other corrupt and elite groups of Delhi, including those that have ties with the state. The other time was when Sardarji attended the birthday party hosted in A.S.’s room.

When Sardarji and I met, I felt like there was much to discuss since we do not have very good ways of communication when we are in different countries. We spoke in Hindi. I prefer to talk in Hindu with someone in person rather than on the phone, because there would be more visual cues for me to understand. Sardarji thought that the case of A.S. was one of the important things to be discussed with me, since we were friends. He asked me if I knew about the case. I said yes, I had read about it, and I was very shocked about the situation. He said he was shocked as well, since A.S. seemed to have been such an innocent boy (sada). We both agreed that A.S. seemed innocent. Sardarji gave me more details which he witnessed on the night of the police raid after the FIR was filed: the policemen stormed Brahmaputra hostel and one even slapped A.S. The moral accusations hurled at A.S. that night by various agents of the law seemed to be more emotionally charged than the actual “crime”: he was married at home and was having relations with more than one girl who were not his wife. Sardarji also seemed to be more appalled by the promiscuity rather than the rape. It is very ironic that the last time all three of us bonded, Sardarji, A.S. and I were discussing about the acts that rebelled against the state (in Hindi): JNU students had been defending one JNU female student who had been harassed by a Delhi elite who was the son of some politician. The police came to arrest students and it was a total chaotic clash. This time, for Sardarji, the police now represented moral authority that rightly punished the philanderer. I listened with awe to both cases, since 1) I did not witness or could not have read about it anywhere and 2) my language capabilities restricted me from posing questions that would generate more nuanced details. Sardarji and I talked perhaps for 40 minutes and this case was the most prominent theme.  We said goodbye and I left the campus.
Through facebook, A.S. also learned that I was in Delhi and reached out on facebook to meet up.  I did not know how to make about the whole situation and I did not reply.

Today, I was reading Nivedita Menon’s book Recovering Subversion and the chapter on rape was particularly thought-provoking. “Law’s claim to truth is based on a binary logic which sets up oppositions like truth/untruth, guilt/innocence, consent/non-consent. This binary logic, [Carol Smart] argues, is completely inappropriate to what she calls the ‘ambiguity of rape.’ In criminal law the object is to establish guilt or innocence, and in rape cases, the establishing of either, turns on another pair of opposites: that of consent/non-consent.
The dualism of consent/non-consent is “completely irrelevant to women’s experience of sex. Neither begins to approach the complexity of a woman’s position when she is being sexually propositioned or abused… (T)he ‘telling’ of a story of rape or abuse inevitably reveals ambiguities. Hence a woman may agree to a certain amount of intimacy but not to sexual intercourse. In the legal model however, consent to the former is consent to full intercourse… (I)n legal terms submission fits on the consent side of the dichotomy. The only alternative when non-consent is not established is to presume consent.” (p123)
This story came up again in my mind and I decided to write down what I have learned so far. How to think about an anthropology of sexual assault or sex work that does not fall into the binaries of consent/non-consent or agency and oppression?


Access to the Iraqi Field

In between a trip to Prague, I have been reading books on the modern history of Iraq, the legal history of women's rights in Iraq, and biographical narratives of diasporic Iraqi women. This coming month also marks the third year since I permanently moved from Beijing, which was my home for many years. Many reflections on diaspora and the meaning of living abroad came up when I read books on Iraqi politics as well as Kundera's classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I also compare diasporic conditions cross cultures during my time spent with the Pakistani student community in Gottingen. While the background of my interest is mostly personal, this blog post will mainly address the political issues and questions of methodologies that surfaced when I read the books on Iraq.

In her book Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present, Dr. Nadje Sadig Al-Ali presents material she gathered through interviews with women from four different diasporic communities, including Amman, London, San Diego, and Detroit. There are many similarities between the Iraqi communities I am reading about in Dr. Al-Ali's work and the Pakistani community I encountered, such as the highly contested narratives of the twentieth century. Given the hetergenous makeup of the Iraqi diasporic community, with different ethnic groups, sects and classes occupying different social and political lives, the matter is evidently complex. Generations also mattered: the order of persecution entailed a different relationship with politics. This was also spelled out to me during a conversation with a Kurdish friend, P., who comes from Syrian-occupied Kurdistan. He has stayed in Germany for many years and most of his family is here. He works, studies, and likes the idea that his future would be bounded with Germany. I told him during a conversation about the sufferings of my other Syrian friend who lives in India right now and has been separated from his family since the war started. He replied that indeed, it is a hard life for my friend and other recently exiled Syrians, but his own family had established themselves abroad earlier because they have been persecuted earlier as a religious minority. In other words, my friend may suffer now, but it's because he didn't have to think about it earlier. We each receive our own due in time.

Al-Ali also addresses the sectarian issue through her experiences in the field. During her research in the U.S., she stays with various Iraqi families and acutely notices the differences in locale and socialization. During her research in Dearborn and the broader Detroit Area, the issue of sect becomes strong enough for her to voice her own opinions in this particular situation:

As I talked to the group of young women refugees, it became evident that at least this group of recently arrived women had a very strong sense of their roots and identity, both as Iraqis and Shi'is involved a strong sense of entitlement in terms of rights and privileges in the new Iraq. It also entailed a very strong and, for me personally, disturbing sectarianism that was directed not only at Sunni Iraqis but also at Iraqi Chaldeans. Khadija, just like Fatima and her sister Zeinab, criticized Iraqi Chaldeans for having been supporters of the previous regime and for failing to engage in anti-government activities in previous years. I was puzzled by this sweeping generalization and condemnation of the Chaldean community. Although several Chaldeans I talked to had clearly appreciated the generally secular nature of the previous regime, especially before 1991, which allowed for the relative religious freedom of minorities, many of the more established and well-to-do Chaldean families have been active supporters of the Bush government and his war on Iraq. (p38, emphasis my own)

I also encounter this question of methodology when I conducted research in Germany and Lucknow. When I encounter South Asian and Iraqi Muslims and explain that one of my research interests include Shi'ism, it often sends a message that I am someone who has affinity with the imagined community of Shi'as. The scope of the imagined community depends on the world view and values of the person in question, and how he or she would answer the question of "who is a Shi'a." For me, the question is extremely delicate and variable on situation.

A picture of Imam Hussain in a food store owned by Iraqis. Louisville, KY,  2016
The paragraph by Al-Ali also raises the question of politics and religion: to what extent can one draw the line between sectarianism and political activism? Many of the NGOs and charities related to Iraq claim that they service all sects, which clearly shows there are many NGOs and charities that have particular sectarian identity, subtle or not. When does a "sectarian" conversation or situation call for an activist scholar, such as Al-Ali, to intervene? This also goes back to the debate within race and sociology: is one studying a social group for the purpose of an empirical understanding, or is there an ethical obligation to that group's future? When one labels and understands situations through the lense of sects in an informed manner, the research is usually empirically rich and analytically strong. But what are the additional methodological concerns?

In evaluating narratives of women's rights in Ba'athist Iraq, historian Noga Efrati has noted in her book Women in Iraq how positionality affects the written historical accounts.

Doreen Ingrams and Deborah Cobbet present the clearest examples of following only one narrative. Whereas Ingrams favors the Iraqi Women's Union narrative, Cobbett bases her work on the League for the Defense of Women's Rights narrative. Their contrasting historical probes were probably influenced mainly by their conflicting attitude toward the Ba'ath regime as well as by their personal connections with different Iraqi women. Ingrams, at least at the beginning of the 1980s, sided with regime supporters, whereas Cobbett sided with its opponents. (p134, emphasis my own)

Furthermore, what happens when one relies on one's own group identity to gain access? Researchers such as Nadje Al-Ali (p29) as well as anthropologist Hayder al-Mohammad have mentioned how their family introduced them to certain contacts in the field. Al-Ali has also met many contacts through her own activism in London and Hayder al-Mohammad established contacts from arising circumstances over the length of five years in Basra. Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod also discusses her father's role in her field:
[M]any people remain intrigued by what I wrote about my father having introduced me to this community, perhaps because it makes us think hard about our inevitable positionality in fieldwork. I understand my father’s motives a bit differently now that I am a parent, but I also worry that people exaggerate the importance of this introduction. I still treasure the ways I was able to participate in the intimate and lively women’s world. I know that it was a bit easier for me to be part of this family because of this identity. But even though being perceived as Arab, Muslim, and respectable (under the protection of my father) was important, I don’t think we should overstate its importance. Fieldwork is intense and interpersonally complicated for everyone. Once you are there, no matter how introduced, it is you—as a person—who develops the relationships you do, even as you never escape your locatedness.
It would be an overstatement to say that their research would have been markedly different without the family contacts; still, the question is unresolved in my mind. Al-Mohammad does a wonderful job of historicizing the idea of "tribes." He questions the method which sees tribes as the dominant form of social organization in his 2011 article "You have Car Insurance, We have Tribes." Still, access to tribes were crucial in the field, and the male Iraqi identity was no doubt a gamechanger in terms of on-the-ground research. He writes, "Many leaders are very generous, not only with their wealth and power, but also with their time. Many have also been tremendously protective of me, with no hope of ever seeing anything in return other than friendship and gratitude." Identity plays such a crucial role in these sites, and thus to present oneself with an established lineage (sect or locale) affects how one is perceived in the field. I would like to read more about the implications of this approach.

Al-Mohammad passionately argues about his positionality in an interview and invokes his "brown eyes" that sees what non-brown eyes fail to see--
I have skin in this game, to invoke an idiom I am rather fond of. I’m an Iraqi. I consider Basra my home and not London where I have spent more than twenty years. The problem is, then, where can I turn to that has been relatively untarnished by the theorizers and fly-by-night Iraq specialists? What I noticed was that events, local happenings and moments, are too small for the young bucks, trying to make their name in this racket, to get their hands dirty in. They also did not have access to such experiences, nor did they have a grasp of the background knowledge and ways of life of ordinary Iraqis, hence struggled to notice the significance of certain events. Many have conducted interviews in the north of Iraq in Erbil, or outside Iraq in Amman and Cairo with Iraqi refugees, but essentially, everyday life in Iraq has been beyond the reach of the machinery.

Finally, it is appropriate to end with this observation on academia by Hayder al-Mohammad, to understand the importance of entering the field with his particular approach:
The reason why anthropologists have turned to institutions, cults, groups, and scholars is because of the obvious difficulty in locating one’s fieldwork. Not being natives of the region where they are working in, most anthropologists have few doors open to them. But what starts off as a difficulty in locating where one should, and actually could, conduct fieldwork has a very serious impact on what is studied and how it is studied. Clearly, working with religious scholars and Imams will give you a very limited picture of Islam as it is lived.
Most anthropologists do not make clear at all how extraordinarily artificial the pictures they draw of Islam and the life of Muslims are because of the limitations of where they do their fieldwork. So artificial indeed that I have on many occasions sat with my ethnographies of Islam and translated it into Arabic to small crowds in Iraq for most to eventually breakdown into fits of laughter. The comments I hear on many occasions tend to be: “They must think we are really stupid in the West.” (emphasis my own)