the nervous system


Beirut, Friday, July 26, 2002

"-History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you back a kick?" (James Joyce, Ulysses, p. 40 of the 1971 Penguin edition).



A military commander from the Islamic militant Hamas group was painstakingly explaining to a BBC reporter that, as far as his group is concerned, "everyone" in Israeli "society" was to be hold responsible for what is going on: considering that conscription is mandatory, then practically everyone is related to the military, has extensive training, and men and women are kept for long years in their professionals lives as back-up reservists. Everyone must also be a "colonizer" since the "Zionist state" is a collective experience. And he then concluded with confidence --as if his interviewer had been aptly following him-- that what we are facing is a full "militarized society," one whose mode of being is the "military" per se. That kind of statement came the day following the killing of the presumed higher military commander of Hamas, who had been targeted by an Israeli F-16 in a crowded Gaza neighborhood, together with his family and unlucky neighbors, many of them had perished under the rubbles.

Individuals tend to project on others the views that they have of their own selves --it would be indeed nice if we could all live with double or triple standards-- and, similarly, societies project on other societies their own "collective consciousness," to use a term coined by Durkheim over a century ago. Thus, it is Palestinian "society" which has become a war-like zombie, fully militarized, where anyone could be called to action for the just "cause" --as a suicide-bomber, for a martyr's funeral, or political propaganda. What in classical Islam was referred to as dar al-harb, the "outside" territory of "war" of the infidels, has become the de facto "inside" territory of the Palestinians. In effect, the nature of Palestinian society prohibits it from keeping "war" on the "outside" --on some kind of real frontier, borderline, or an outside territory where the "enemy" is faced at a distance. Instead, it's "society" as-a-whole that's fully politicized, hence fully militarized by the same token. Consider the outcome of the "second intifada," as it is now called. Every aspect of "civil life" --or what remains of it-- has been disrupted, family life is in shambles, schools and universities remain closed most of the time, shops and businesses open sporadically, and unemployment is at an all time high. But there are probably even more important sociological outcomes. Consider, for example, age and gender (sexual) barriers, which shape any society albeit in different forms. When kids are "struggling" everyday in the streets --and international and regional reporters have been tirelessly covering their activities-- it's all kinds of moral and disciplinary barriers that begin to shift, but not necessarily for the better. Kids are not expected to behave in the same way at home after having spent their last days and weeks out of school throwing stones, as part of a daily ritual facing well-equipped Israeli soldiers, nor are they expected to do much at school either, and hence all kinds of "duties" towards parents, teachers and elders begin to collapse. If in a war society age barriers tend to shift endlessly, so do gender barriers and sexual norms. Not only women have proved useful in self-sacrifice as suicide-bombers, but the role of the mother has become similar to the one in Afro-American ghettos. As fathers are lurking in their backyards and become invisible figures, the mother is the epicenter of the family. The suicide-bombers, known as "martyrs" among Arabs, got into the habit of taping a final self-congratulatory and apologetic message, only to be made public once "success" has been secured. Always drafted in a non-individualistic tone --even though it is always an individual screaming for help on those video pictures-- they claim the superiority of the "cause," the "people" one is fighting for, and the forthcoming victory of Arabism and Islam. (Suicidal characters in western societies, in particular those who empty their automatic machineguns in public, do exactly the reverse: they tend to emphasize the individualistic nature of their act, their isolation from all the rest, including family and friends, underscore their hatred for society, and the fact that their act is against their own society.) Then, very gradually, and in the last few tapes, some have begun paying tribute to the mother they had "left behind," and even more recently, the mother herself has begun to show up in her son's video, side-by-side to the future martyr, holding hands like lovers. And even more recently, the mother would come with her own statement, following that of her son. In one such instance, the Palestinian mother addressed all Israeli mothers that in case your son had been (accidentally, of course) targeted by a suicide-bomber, it's because your "occupation" of "our territories" is your "collective responsibility." In short, no one is targeted as an "individual," but only part of a "collective will" (or "collective consciousness").

What is most intriguing in all those videos of all those future martyrs and their mothers (and invisible fathers) is the visibility of the mask only, while the "face" remains hidden. What bothers the most is that big masquerade in the framing itself: too much "background" in those video clips --in particular when the future-martyr began openly receiving the benediction of his mother. But with or without the mother, the frame contains too much background and not much close-up on the face/mask. I would have liked more of a close-up to see how much of that mask reciting (or reading) one of those repetitive memos would still be visible: Would the "face" finally come into being? We tend to think that in those societies there's too much emphasis on kin, the clan, the group and family --and that's undeniable-- but what all such actions point to is precisely that individualist angst: the desire to be "your own," to show up as an "individual" "self" through something extraordinary. All that is performed while looking at your own society, and that of your opponent/enemy, as a monolithic collectivity. We tend to underscore the importance of the "religious" in those societies, but, again, with all kind of barriers collapsing, suicide-bombings have been generally claimed by Muslim extremist groups, even though the "martyrs" themselves are not that overtly zealous when it comes to deeply motivated religious beliefs. Those youngsters, having already been uprooted from their kin and class formations (hence the importance accorded to the figure of the "mother" as a last resort), find their final salvation in a deadly individualistic act.

The Israelis circulated a couple of weeks ago the picture --whom they claimed they found in a home during one of those numerous military searches-- of a one-year old baby whose parents had apparently dressed with explosives. The picture, which became known as the diaper-suicide-bomber in the Israeli press, and which whether genuine or not, translates nevertheless all too well all those collapsing borderlines, beginning with the fantasy of the ubiquitousness of the process of the suicide-bomber: anyone can do it, hence everyone is a potential candidate. In early May, a young girl in her early twenties who was going to detonate herself in one of those crowded bus-stops, suddenly decided to defect only minutes before it was all supposed to happen. Why she first decided to go for it and then defected will remain a mystery, but what is probably less mysterious, however, is the process of selecting and training those would be martyrs. Initially, and only a couple of years ago, it used to be a four-six-month process, while that has been now reduced to less than a week, from the moment the volunteer makes his or her contact, to the "training" and up to the final act of martyrdom, which reminds me of a Taiwanese factory producing laptops: gradually, you figure out where time is wasted on the assembly lines, which parts turn the most vulnerable, and which ones have a high cost, until you learn how to make the most out of your assembly line.

But if the diaper-suicide-bomber photograph had made such a fuss (see, for example, an editorial posted on The New Republic website), the routinized funerals, which have now become a daily scene, are part of the general ritualization that blurs all borderlines between the private (the individual and family) and the public (politics), and between the individual, the state and society. Again, a recently (allegedly) discovered memo by the Israeli military (and published in Time magazine in early April), which was typed in Arabic on a word processor, details all the costs of martyrdom, beginning with the recruitment and training, wall posters carrying the photos of those martyrs, his or her "public" funeral, the bullets to be emptied in great sorrow up in the air, and, last but not least, the cash compensations to the families. Martyrdom is therefore a complete economy-the only economy over there. But if it's accorded that much importance it's probably because it serves all purposes of a collective "mob" ritual, since, amid the filtering of class, kin and communal identities, only "mobs" filling those delaminated streets are left in action.

The ex-prime minister Ehud Barak and the historian Benny Morris (who has a significant contribution on the Palestinian refugee problem) have co-signed an article in the all too serious The New York Review of Books. They make the point that Palestinians (and probably also imply the Arabs in general) do not have an "honest" notion of "truth"--at least not the one common to the Judeo-Christian tradition. (Barak must have felt vamped at Camp David by a professional liar.) In other words, there's no "principle of reality" with those Palestinians, and with one "lie" after another, our two authors conclude, there must be a serious cultural problem. What they forgot to say, however, is that in practically all pre-modern discourses, that "reality principle," so important to Judeo-Christianity and to psychoanalysis in particular, does not work anymore. Not that people systematically lie in pre-modern societies, but the relationship between statement and factual evidence does not pose itself that bluntly. Discourses fall within hermeneutic traditions whose approval by a community of scholars is a question of normative values being consecrated rather than being tested on a true/false basis.

Which does not justify, of course, the "lies" that the Palestinian leadership might have committed towards its own constituency or the international community at large. It rather points to the pre-modern nature of Palestinian society as-a-whole. And that's the big problem. At a time when modern Europe (and then North America) went ahead first with the nation-state and then the welfare-state, most of the world was --and is-- still lagging behind. But then the welfare-state has been (almost) abandoned altogether while slowly giving birth to a post-modern market-state. What gave the likes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton that all going juvenile charm --after the aura of Thatcherism and Reaganomics-- was their realization that the "left" must shift gears towards market values. Thus, the idea promoted by the welfare-state that society in its totality must consolidate values of class cohesiveness, shared norms and well-being for all, through a redistribution of society's wealth, has practically died since the end of the cold war, if not before. Now the prosperous citizens of the G-7 group (it should be G-8, but I'm deliberately omitting Russia) are promised well-being through market action, open trade, multinationals, research and development, stock options, and an aggressive private sector. Such an ideology has reached such a point that it seems irreversible even in the wake of falling stock values this summer.

The point here is that societies never evolve at the same wavelength, so that today the pre-modern, modern and post-modern states all co-exist side-by-side, and that's why it's impossible to forge an international set of values. But there's nothing radically new, however, in that kind of situation. Looking at Fernand Braudel's "long" sixteenth century, one could still see the Ottomans sharing the Mediterranean with the Habsburgs and the Italian city-states, which at times was peaceful and at others bloody. But with empires disintegrating into much smaller nation-states, and some of which behaving naughtily, the options could range from anything like threats and bribes, direct coercion, war, or a full-fledged imperialism.

An outcome of centuries of Mamluk and Ottoman rule, the Palestinians are a quintessential aspect of a pre-modern society. With the entire Fertile Crescent conserving its "feudal" character until the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire, the general characteristics of oriental "feudalism" have remained stamped into those societies: propertyless peasants surviving under corvées, and which for the most part were disconnected from the urban nobility and city life in general, and left with no political or legal protection of any kind; the urban centers never crystallized into anything coherent, either in terms of political or judicial instances, or a homogenization of the circulating currencies, conscription, and city planning and public services; and despite an active merchant class, the combination of merchants, landowners, and literati did not evolve into a coherent class providing a bourgeois public culture. What thus emerges after the short but decisive colonialist experience was a multitude of quasi-nations, and pre-modern states and societies whose methods of "integration" are rough at best. In hindsight, and in light of Benny Morris's research, it was not that difficult to uproot the mass of Palestinian populations from both countryside and cities: the societal formations were so loose that even centuries of disciplinary machineries would not be enough to hold them back together.

State formations of a radically different nature could live peacefully side-by-side, if they want to. But when pre-modern societies have no other option but to modernize and open their markets, they might become, vulnerable as they are, only a source of cheap labor. Death, however, is an even cheaper alternative.
copyright © 2002 zouhair ghazzal