Loft Story

There are societies where entities such as the state, the economy, the market, and the law, act not only as mythical abstractions, but also as oppressive entities whose very existence seems paradoxically nowhere and, at the same time, in every body and mind. Those second- and third-world societies, whose range varies considerably from the ex-Soviet Union to Columbia, Guatemala, China, Egypt and Syria, had at some point until the nineteenth century, some kind of ancien régime of their own, which had kept for a long time a minimal sense of harmony and cohesion for the various heterogeneous populations of those regions ­-or at least that's what we would like to think, considering the amount of damage that the glorious twentieth century has created.

The fragmentation of space and its abstraction have become the landmark of all those post-colonial states in their unsuccessful attempts to control a poorly defined and heterogeneous territory. But time is no better, since the idea of connecting a population to its historical heritage has become a luxury all by itself, one that only the wealthiest nations could afford. The "others" are left to their own sensual experiences, with a broad mythological history which hardly excites the mind, as it has been so much ritualistically rehearsed, repeated, only to be betrayed by a more modernist spirit.

Modern capitalism is a force of its own and has its own logic, independently of national territories, we are told. Yet those second- and third-world "territories" have "missed" "their" capitalisms all the way through. First, through a poor and very partial implementation of its principles, and then through a hegemonic state on the top whose ineffective bureaucracy selectively chooses what needs to circulate within the national territory and through its borders. Capital, Marx repeated ad nauseam, likes to circulate indefinitely. If a commodity finally finds its resting place ­-or its value as a utility-- in the hands of its happy user, capital cannot find a resting place since it's abstract by definition. But that's precisely what many of those territorial states would like to do: they want to know where your capital is moving --and that's why they look so busy, with all those pseudo-bureaucracies nested within other repressive bodies.

I got into the habit of picking up one of those many Syrian intelligence officers few miles before crossing the coastal border between Lebanon and Syria. On weekends they wait for single-passenger cars at the Syrian checkpoints a couple of miles after exiting from the northern city of Tripoli. As I like to travel on my own, I'm always a happy target. Those officers tend to be usually just-married young men, with a housewife and a couple of kids waiting for them in a village in the 'Alaoui mountains. They also tend to be polite chain smokers, always apologizing for every cigarette they burn in the small space of my air-conditioned Honda, and, knowing the current tension among the Lebanese populace and the Syrians, they apologetically conceal their arrogance. But there's no mistake about it: serving in Lebanon, even with a meager salary, is more prestigious than being in Syria --even though the economic benefits of such a transfer remain uncertain, considering that each extra-cash has to be bargained individually, and that it's usually their superiors (who never ask anyone for a ride) who get the real cash.

I was happy when I realized that the young 'Alaoui I picked up on an early Friday morning in late June did fit exactly with my general portrait. He was stationed in the northern mountainous region of the Cedars (from which Lebanon receives its flag-symbol), and was coming home for the weekend. He began mentioning the agriculture in his village, the importance of family and kin, his recent marriage, etc. But we then came to our fundamental topic of the day: the hashish plantations which have begun to reemerge in some of the plains of eastern Lebanon. "Yes," he said, "I've seen some of them with my own eyes even though the Cedars is not overall touched by the phenomenon. A French photographer and journalist had his film burned by angry peasants, but at least they gave him back his camera."

The mathematics goes on as follows. For every kilogram of hashish, the peasants receive on average $1,500. At the end of the process, that same kilogram is sold for over $100,000 in the streets of Miami. Conclusion: those who benefit from the process are neither the peasants nor their region for that matter --that would be asking too much-- but only the intermediaries who make the middle process possible, meaning all kinds of local politicians, army officers, dealers, merchants, international traffickers, etc.

In a celebrated chapter of Kapital, which has attracted the attention of Walter Benjamin, Marx describes what he calls the "fetishism of commodities." Commodities are not exchanged anymore for their use value, but even their exchange value --for which Marx has spent his lifetime arguing that it was based on the quantum of labor invested in it (wrongly, I should add, but that's another story)-- is not what matters anymore. Once an object becomes fetish, it loses contact with the rational, only to be invested into the mythical and religious realms. Under capitalism, a set of objects designate status, lifestyle, prestige, age, sex, a philosophical orientation, aggressiveness, and above all an ability to look "cool" (to quote an American saying, which must have begun as an advertisement). The Virgin Megastore which just opened in downtown Beirut has already an aura to it. To begin, it is situated in a renovated building, and occupying it in toto, and which used to be, prior to its damage in the civil war, a theater and opera house --that's enough to tell you where "culture" is heading these days: the French-oriental architecture of the 1920s and 1930s is being rehabilitated stone-by-stone, only to transform the haute culture of the Mandate into a haute couture. The upper floor of the Megastore has a trendy restaurant, whose tables overlook the floor below where layers upon layers of CDs are stacked. But the upper floor, where the restaurant is now located, used to be the upper spectators' lounge. All of this trucage is very well done, I dare to add, and adds to the fetish nature of the store and its aura. (The Virgin store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile looks by contrast dull in its straightforward squared architecture, but then transforming the Chicago opera house into a store that sells CDs would have created an uproar.)

But there is more to it than the incessant trompe-l'oeil in that kind of architecture. The importance of the exhibited commodities is that they're only nominally for exchange. In effect, what is exchanged is not the commodity itself as much as all the symbolic values it imparts on its bearer. To begin, the store displays an array of object-commodities which seem unrelated at first sight: cell phones, books, magazines, DVDs, CDs, cameras, computers, etc. Then, second, their average price is affordable, if not low --$20 on average-- so that even if you're leading an impecunious life there are ad infinitum symbols to exchange. In effect --and that's the genius of the whole operation-- you're constructing a lifestyle through such symbols, and in a way that's much more refined than simply owning a nice home or a car (or a woman). Hence their apparent non-relatedness only "relates" through each consumer's mind: as a set of symbols whose value denotes a lifestyle, or a "personality" if you wish. There's indeed something Tocquevillian in all those people rushing to consume those gadgets: it's as if they're all looking for their "political rights" through the consumption of such objects. Modern capitalism dislocates individuals and breaks their natural bonds, while transforming them into narcissistic entities unable to become the political animals that all philosophers since Aristotle wanted them to be. So we're left with stylish individuals, whose very act of consumption signals a cosmos of its own.

I could go on for ever with that kind of stuff, in particular that those globalization megastores are flourishing. There's at the other end of Virgin the new Nike store whose huge banner of a black athlete is only partly hidden by the nearby mosque. (I managed a photograph of a gigantic Nike sneakers with the upper tower of the mosque all in one frame.) But even though all those stores are spreading around like a disease, I'm not sure that their symbols are always the same: we need to be patient and see whether a sneaker in Beirut carries the same symbolic value as in Chicago. (Ironically, the Virgin and Nike superstores on Chicago's Magnificent Mile reproduce their Beirut face-to-face location.) Starbucks, which has already three stores in Beirut, has made the decision to tackle difficult cities such as Rome and Vienna, namely places with a long tradition for coffee drinking: Will they succumb to the new American style? International companies these days do not think in terms of a "need" only, but always in terms of adventure and conquest. The folks at Starbucks in Seattle must have gotten pretty bored with all their successes conquering all those easy cities such as Tokyo and Beirut, where people are dying for a new cheap symbol of gratification, so let's see if Rome and Vienna will work out for a change, even though the Italians and Austrians must be already saturated with coffee up to the next century.

After this long détour on fetishism, I need to come back to my Syrian trip. I finally reached the border early in the morning with the young man in my car. The northern Lebanese-Syrian border is marked by the Awwali river that demarcates the two countries. The economics of demarcation, however, is much stronger. In effect, and due to the 5:1 ratio in the standard of living between the two countries, the circulation of labor from Syria to Lebanon achieves gigantic proportions with estimates ranging from 200,000 to a million worker. More importantly, a Syrian concierge in Beirut receives a salary equivalent to a fully tenured university professor in Damascus, namely $300 on average per month, which is still more than what a high-ranking judge would receive.

The Dabbousiyeh border was quiet that early morning with the officers still sipping their coffees, having spent their night bargaining with and receiving their dues from smugglers. But on my way back ten days later, in a hot and humid afternoon, the border was crowded with Syrian workers trying to get their passes stamped. It all looked like those "gates" that the Israelis have constructed all along the Gaza strip and the West Bank, and which serve as filters for the cheap Palestinian labor. The bulk of the third-world does not have the luxury of an "economic" rationale, but only fragmented spaces --euphemistically denoted as "national" territories-- where bodies circulate as labor. The body as a sign for an exchange value: the phenomenon becomes even more visible in those rare occasions when the juxtaposed borders manifest a substantial difference in the standard of living --the US-Mexican border, for one, being its quintessential phenomenon, but so is the Syrian-Lebanese border. In most cases, however, the circulation of labor implies smuggling bodies through international borders, mountains, rivers and seas. Thus, a Syrian attempting to find a job in Lebanon is still romantic compared to a Kurd crossing hidden in a truck half a dozen borders before reaching Germany, only to be incarcerated in one of those labor-camps around Berlin.

But between those wealthier and poorer nations if bodies circulate as labor, commodities on the other hand become sacrosanct, meaning that they are doubly fetishized. There is always something "of value" that the Syrian border officers are searching for: Do you have a video camera? There was a time, in the early 1990s, when the video camera became a popular consumer object in Syria, as everywhere else in the world, and passengers began buying them in Beirut and smuggling them inland. But since then the prices have dropped dramatically, besides the fact that cameras have become so ubiquitous that there's no need for the hardship of smuggling anymore. But in Syria, even if the entire world collapses, routine has still to be followed. Otherwise, there would be nothing to believe in anymore.

So the officer, out of pure routine, repeats his question: Do you have a video camera? No, I don't. But as I opened my two suitcases, the officer was in fact interested in something else. He pointed to a green box. That's regular color film --20 rolls in total. When a French photographer who visited Russia has published his book last year, I was astonished by the quality of the Rembrandt-like colors, so I decided to opt for the same grain, and bought a stock from New York. When I told the officer that I'll be staying for two weeks, and with two rolls a day 20 rolls are not that extravagant, he insisted that all this be reported to his superior. We're talking quantity here rather than value. Never mind that the 20-roll pack costs only $50, and that had I sold it in toto in Aleppo I would have made no more than a $5 profit --I wouldn't go that low, despite my horrific salary-- the number "20" must have a ring to it. A couple years ago I've had the same problem with a dozen T-shirts: all were black and nicely packed in my suitcase. So I ended up packing T-shirts of different colors and brands this time to minimize suspicion.

But now I'm stuck with those damned rolls. He reported me to his superior, and was taken like a prisoner of war to his office. The commander of the post greeted me with a simile, and then ordered that, since I'm an immigrant living abroad and now on a short visit to my "mother country," to let me in with the 20 rolls. But back to the customs, the lower officer insisted that a note be appended to my pass-card: "You can use whatever you like, but you still have to come out with 20 rolls. We're doing it for your safety," he added, "What if one of those police patrols stops you and discovers the rolls?" "But why should I smuggle 20 rolls? And besides, you're now forcing me to process them in Beirut." But he missed my point. Once in his office we argued on how to spell Fujicolor: "Are you French or English educated?," he asked, "The J and G are spelled differently from one language to the other."

I've always looked at writing and intellectual activity in general like visiting your psychoanalyst once a week: you organize your past and present gradually by talking about it, and if things are progressing you might feel better. There are cities like Paris or New York which have a rich body of artistic and scientific representations, while others, such as Aleppo or Damascus, are next to nothing in this respect --I'm not even aware of a single photographic portfolio for either city, or a film, or a fiction, while their histories remain fragmented at best, with no beginning and no end in sight. But as I reached one of Aleppo's southern entrances, I thought that it all didn't matter. Whether you're in Paris, Rome, New York, or a forgotten city like Aleppo, "reality"-as-representation is never mastered, and is always "there" to be discovered. We tend to forget this simple fact because we're saved by our daily routines, achievements, and the things we've accumulated as achievements such as wealth, status, and knowledge. Western civilization has constructed an impassioned objective stance for representing nature and society, but in the meantime it has left the subject screaming for help. Modern education and research focus so much on objective notions of knowledge to the point that the individual subject has lost all interest in knowledge as such. Such an epistemology has created an unprecedented barrier between object and subject to the point that we badly need a subjective takeover of that objective knowledge --and a fortiori in the natural and social sciences.

Modern video cameras have a magical side-screen that instantaneously frames in colored pixels. It gives you that illusion of framing --representing-- every moment of your life as a never ending work in continuous flux. It could then be edited, reproduced, and transmitted without any quality loss. But once you leave behind you the routines of academia, of achievements and honors, you're left with that instantaneous "reality" that needs to be framed in words and images. That's particularly true for societies whose cultural symbols are getting juxtaposed from a wide array of cultures. Disconnected from their past, their present has an immediacy that directly hits your nervous system.

The Baron hotel at the center of Aleppo is one of the last architectural vestiges of the late Ottoman period. Constructed by Armenians at the turn of the century, it was supposed to represent a rationalized and modern architecture. But besides its golden period throughout the French Mandate and later, it began to fall apart with the nationalizations in the 1960s, to the point that should Agatha Christie, who had a room there at one point, come back to write another mystery from her balcony, she would still feel at home. Time stands still. And so does the time in my room. The air-conditioning machine was Russian made, with a 110/220 converter half its size. It made a horrific noise that I was unable to dominate because all the instructions were in Russian, so I opted for the excessive heat and turned it off. From the 1960s up to perestroika, Syria kept a large debt towards the ex-USSR, and in return, the Syrians have been exporting all kinds of goods to the ex-Soviet Republics. The Syrian economy thus got into the habit of producing low-quality products that no one wants, and with Gorby in power the system was already dead by the late 1980s. But still, the so-called public sector produces the same stuff, and with no buyers in mind.

Having been permanently exonerated from my military service after a $5,000 payment in cash, I drove the following day to my family's hometown in Idlib hoping to receive my passport. It must have been I was fifteen when I last received a Syrian passport, so my excitement was great, but to no avail: it turned out that there was an arrest warrant lingering since 1995 for having "escaped" from my military service. I began an argument with the officer on the basis that the warrant should have been automatically cancelled after my exoneration. What's the point of keeping it? But there was no point arguing: the state institutions are independent from one another --as if the "separation of powers" of Montesquieu has only been applied in this country: those institutions work individually on their own and do not make sense as a totality. The arrest warrant came originally from the army offices, then transferred to the executive (police, etc.), and here I was in an office that provides passports and has no connection with either the army or the executive. The officer explained to me the long road to Damascus. First, appear in front of a military tribunal in Aleppo and ask their forgiveness for not having served in the army; then, second, clear my name permanently from the police headquarters in Damascus; and, finally, last but not least, receive an authorization from the office of immigration and passports (in Damascus) for my own passport.

People without literary imagination like myself tend to describe any strangely inhabited bureaucratic environment as Kafkaesque, for lack of a better terminology. But by the time I received my final authorization from Damascus I was half-dead, so I thought that I need a better word for that kind of environment. How about the Hegelianism of the poor? The bureaucracy gets sophisticated only when it needs to control the circulation of individuals over its territory, and it does so by means of newly installed IBM terminals over all its borders and some of its offices. The officer in Damascus --the last one I've met and with whom I've completed a $10 deal to set me off once and for all-- told me how "lucky" I was for having my name vanish with the click of a mouse --information at your fingertips.

Back to Aleppo and the Baron. I've now requested one of the new revamped rooms hoping to get a decent night's sleep before going to Idlib the following day. The Japanese air conditioning machine was extremely silent, but all the instructions were now in Japanese, so I froze all night for not knowing that language.

The following day I received my Syrian passport.

No one asked me about the 20 rolls on my way back.





Tuesday, July 24, 2001