On Collapse, Identity and History: An Interview

I had a long chat with Matt Dagher-Margosian of Asia Art Tours. Part 1 was published in October 2020 and part 2 was published in November 2020.

Asia Art Tours: I’m struggling with my own personal apocalypse in ways that mirror the main forms of global collapse. To give one example (besides the obvious one of my rampant alcoholism), I continue to play basketball in a body on the precipice of breaking down catastrophically… almost as if I want to deliberately destroy myself. But I do it anyways to feel something. Otherwise I find myself living life through a screen, in friendships and communities who can block me (or vis versa) at any time, in a way that feels endlessly abstracting. I can either erase myself fast or slow, this is my only choice. For so many others around the world, they don’t even get that. 

To me this mirrors much of the violence we’re experiencing in the present, either spectacular systemic collapses like the Beirut port explosion, or the gradual erosion of our humanity, like the Neoliberal destruction by Solidére. For you have you also felt the world seeping into your body and brain in ways that mirror or are related to the ways I mention above? This question of quick or slow erasure? 

Joey Ayoub: Before being able to answer your question properly, I need to contextualise my own state of mind. Very recently, we managed to bring one of my dogs to Geneva. A friend brought him to Paris from Beirut and I went to pick him up from there. Having him here has already significantly calmed me down, and I am now able to see things a bit clearer than I sometimes did before. I had been very anxious without my dogs because I grew up surrounded by dogs and I don’t really know how to behave for a long period of time without them. Having him here is like having a piece of home with me. In terms of ‘dog years’, he’s lived in Lebanon as long as I have so him being in Europe with me has a bittersweet aspect to it. It’s home, but it isn’t, and maybe can’t be. It’s very real now, perhaps more so than it was before he came. It’s like now I know that I’m in exile. I have another dog who’s too old to travel and so she’s still in Lebanon. I’m hoping to be able to see her before she dies but I don’t know if that will happen. In more ways than one, she represents what’s becoming clearer every day to me about the place I grew up in, namely that it is structured to murder. It really is in the ‘little things’ like this story. Just picture that. It is a risk for me to see my ageing dog not just because I’m politically active, but because every single day is an actual risk in Lebanon. Every day the state is trying to murder all those who aren’t within its clientalist networks, and even murder those within it. So I wanted to mark that change as it would be dishonest to answer without mentioning it. 

The ‘facts’ remain the same. My work hasn’t changed much, my research interests develop in the same way, I still listen to a lot of podcasts, read books and enjoy cooking or going on walks and hikes. What has changed is my will to invest in the long-term, which is something I genuinely struggle with. I am hyper-aware of the dangers of climate change, due to my scientific background but also due to my genuine concern over this world that I deeply love, to the point where that awareness – on its own – can be destructive to my self. It had reached a point where I was terrified of learning more about whales because we could risk exterminating these extraordinary beings in my own lifetime. Same goes for coral reefs and various birds and mammals. I even stopped going on hikes for some time because seeing mother nature made me depressed. I stopped watching those David Attenborough documentaries that I pretty much grew up on, collecting the DVDs in a sort of shrine in the bedroom of my home in Mount Lebanon. I felt an immense guilt – and still do – for what we are doing to this planet, a knowledge so crushing that ‘being aware’ was all I was managing to do for some time.

But having my dog here made me – forced me – to realise what we all sort of already know: Self-care is so incredibly difficult. I’m learning this because his presence forces a routine on me. I have to walk him, have to feed him, have to give him attention. It’s pretty basic stuff, but it’s the sort of obligations that become increasingly difficult to do with oneself the harder things get. What I have to do for him, and actually enjoy doing, is what I struggled to do for myself. In my worst days I could barely get out of the house, talk to anyone other than my close circle of friends and my partner, and even feed myself properly. So here you can see how caring for someone else is also self-care. 

Self-care is difficult to do because we tend to work under the assumption that we need to ‘feel something’ even if that something is bad for us. Here I must emphasise on ‘work’ because I think this also goes back to how we treat the concept of labor, and how we, even those of us who are very critical, tend to underplay emotional labor. I think your podcast is extremely labor-intensive, something which I of course know firsthand. I also know that I had spent several years downplaying my own labor because the overwhelming majority of it went unpaid. I got so ‘used’ to it that I didn’t even know how to seek paid work anymore. It just became ‘easier’ to stick to unpaid labor because the combination of visa restrictions (in the UK), financial restrictions (in Lebanon) and everything else we all sort of deal with – screen time, social media addiction, polarization in society, the disinformation industry etc – were just magnified to such an extreme extent in my case. Since starting our conversation I’ve been ‘leaving’ social media (I’m still on Twitter but I restrict my time there to the absolute minimum) which is how I am able to actually reply to you. It’s been a process in itself, this conversation. 

And I also know that we will never fully appreciate the labor that goes into researching, recording, editing etc the conversations we put out in the world. The fact that most of that has also been through a screen, the same screen that I, as a migrant, use to connect with most of my support networks, makes it all the more difficult to properly digest anything. One can witness war crimes, chat with friends, read some article, rant online, play some game, watch porn, and follow a webinar on the same screen and within a single day. We owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that this reality is not something our brains are capable of truly comprehending. The disconnect from our own bodies is something that I think is an inherent component of capitalism, even though capitalism cannot survive (I think) without these same bodies. I also think that we are only barely starting to understand just how much of our actual self and agency we have given up to survive in the attention economy which has been dialed up significantly with social media. 

I don’t believe that erasure, whether slow or quick, is ever the only choice. It can definitely feel that way and, as someone who went through a suicidal phase, I know this very well. It’s why I have a semicolon tattoo on my wrist, the same wrist that I tried to end my life with some years ago. But I am very lucky in that I got to experience multiple countries, and this helped me. I was taught at the age of 21 to till the earth by a Quechua speaker in Peru who had to use a language he wasn’t comfortable in, Spanish, to communicate with me and actually take the time to explain to me why we spill a bit to Pachamama before drinking. A Malagasy speaker taught me how to save sea turtles, and the death of a sea turtle under my care at the age of 20 caused such a devastating blow that I still think of her today. This was a lot for some random and young idiot from the Lebanese mountains to experience, but these experiences, among others, are why I never killed myself and why I know I never will. I had to be disconnected from the toxicity that was my life in Lebanon for me to be able to actually deal with Lebanon. I had to truly experience multiple languages to understand that multiple worlds live within me, and not just in some abstract way. That was, and still is, a privilege. This doesn’t mean that I do so perfectly well today either. I am still deeply traumatised, but I know I’m healing, and that is already something. Being able to fix my own broken parts is what’s allowing me to focus more on our world’s broken parts. Our broken parts are also the world’s in the end. I do genuinely believe that whatever we can do to be kinder and fairer to ourselves is what we also need to be doing. 

I have been defeated, and I think many others in Lebanon feel the same way, by the ruling establishment. To use a crap metaphor, I don’t know whether they will win the war, but they have absolutely won this battle. They have won it so thoroughly that seasoned activists in Lebanon are profoundly depressed and exhausted. Mental health struggles are so frequent that they have become the norm, worsened only by the fact that most of us still lack the vocabulary to discuss them. Is that really surprising in a country like Lebanon? We are cut off from the world – quite literally, as our only two neighbors are Syria and Israel – and we are run by the same warlords and oligarchs who got their power by slaughtering other people during the so-called civil war of the 70s/80s or by profiting off of the country’s postwar recon/de-struction, especially through Solidere in Beirut. The irony here is that I think the impulse behind Beirut’s neoliberal postwar recon/de-struction follows a logic that has since morphed into a different beast on the internet. It’s what Walid Sadek called, in a different context, the ‘protracted now’. The internet of social media collapses all temporalities into one that is influenced and that influences various for-profit algorithms. 

The logic that created Solidere is the same as the logic that created Hezbollah, just as the militias that allied themselves to Israel committed acts of savagery similar to the ones committed by militias allied to Syria. Although various analysts will try and persuade you that the multiple forces at play in Lebanon are inherently different, that is simply not true. Their differences come from the specific capital they currently own, not from any radical imperative. Hezbollah is far more dangerous today than the Lebanese Forces (LF) because they have more power, not because the LF’s potential is any less murderous – and same for the rest. It really is that simple. There was a time during the civil war when it was the LF that outdid other militias/parties in its savagery. From the perspective of a Syrian refugee, there may not be much of a difference between the two, given how similar they are in their supremacist ideologies. These are the concrete forces that have forced my own world’s erasure over a period of nearly three decades (longer for my parents and grandparents). What they have done is nothing less than put in motion a slow-paced erasure – I hesitate to use the word extermination, due to the more brutal examples ongoing in Syria and Israel/Palestine right now – with the complete complicity of this so-called ‘international community’ which assisted them in the looting of our financial reserves. 

So what am I saying with all this? A bit of rambling, as always, but there is enough coherence to make the following point: you are not alone in this world. My impression of you in the many months I’ve known you is that you clearly experience more than a lot of people. It is one of those things I can recognise in others, one of my superpowers. Your pain is valid but it cannot be meaningful. Overcoming it is what is meaningful. I will always be grateful that I never had the ‘courage’ to kill myself, as I have since developped the courage to face this horrible and wonderful world head-on. I am so painfully aware of things that are probably too difficult for anyone to handle – myself included – on their own. At this point, I feel like I have to. I owe it to other people, especially those much younger than me, to do much more than what I’m currently doing, and always strive to do more. The difficulty, as already mentioned, is finding the balance. 

Asia Art Tours: One of the reasons I believe we continue to have collective tragedies is that our grief is still individualized. The fiction of the nation to me feels so naked in this moment of Covid-19, where particularly for the US (among the most skilled at collective jingoistic propaganda) there has been nothing in the way of collective grief. The numbers of dead remain numbers and I and other ‘americans’ continue to feel isolated from the departed. 

For what’s happened in Lebanon, do you feel there is a sense of collective grief? And as these apocalyptic events keep happening globally, with more and more regularity, how will collective grief be crucial to making sure we reject this as our new normal? (Unless of course we can stop the many headed hydra of capitalism, racism and the nation state, in which case a better future may be possible) 

Joey Ayoub: There is a sense of collective grief in Lebanon, more so than in the US at the moment in any case. Part of that is because Lebanon is so incredibly small, roughly the size of Connecticut. Virtually everyone I know was affected by the August 4th explosion, or know someone who has, for example. It’s not uncommon to find random Lebanese outside of Lebanon and find some distant connection to your family or friends. If your grandfather was from Mount Lebanon he’s likely connected to my family or my neighborhood or networks. There is a very practical side to this obviously: in such a small environment, it is in your best interest to care about others. This is true everywhere, but in places like the US where polarisation is especially toxic these things are forced out of most people’s consciousness. 

At the same time, I also feel like the grief was highly individual in Lebanon, or individualised, because we are robbed of any sense of a ‘collective’. That is ultimately what sectarianism does and how it propagates itself (same for nationalism, patriarchy etc). Even though the explosion affected people from every sect and nationality, we immediately saw Christian sectarians say that the suffering is primarily Christian, and Lebanese nationalists and xenophobes were denying the right of Syrians and others to mourn their own dead. A more recent explosion in the south of Lebanon was immediately sectarianised as happening in the ‘Shia area’ and sectarian clashes between Sunnis and Shias are never too far from below the surface. In this context, mourning collectively is difficult, whether between Lebanese generally or even just between those who live in Lebanon, Lebanese and non-Lebanese. The moments after the explosion were crucial. There just wasn’t enough pushback against the xenophobes and the sectarians, not because there aren’t enough anti-xenophobes/sectarians in the country but because the latter are so exhausted. 

The notion of a ‘collective’ should be deconstructed as well here. I don’t believe everyone who experienced the explosion experienced it in the same way. Perhaps in the moment and its immediate aftermath that was true, but once the dust settled, so to speak, those who are already equipped with sectarian narratives simply used them to suit their purposes. When complaints were thrown at the president, who had no real response after the explosion other than saying it’s not his fault, and who has rejected any meaningful investigation, they just doubled down and came to his defense. Sectarianism in Lebanon has survived a revolution, a global pandemic and a monstrous explosion. Its adherents will not change their minds any time soon. Their own kids are being forced to flee their country – and they are helping them do so – while they continue to support the same warlords they’ve been supporting since they were teenagers. I’m sure this is no longer an alien phenomenon to Americans who oppose Trump and who are still baffled at how absurd his supporters are. These things don’t baffle me anymore. They’ve become so normalised – despite not being ‘normal’ at all – that I now just skip to the explanations when available.

Regarding the question of the nation state more broadly, I think one of the mental traps we get into is assuming that we must know ‘what to do’ in the absence of nation states, that we must have an alternative already ready. While I would always encourage as many people as I can to try and imagine these alternatives, it is not easy to do. The oft-quoted “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism” is to me a self-evident truism. This is why we have so many apocalyptic movies that simply assume either the aftermath of capitalism or us being permanently stuck in its worst manifestation. It is such an extraordinary waste and I think it even makes it part of the reason why it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than something as relatively simple (compared to an ‘actual’ apocalypse) as humans replacing a human-made economic system. It shows a profound lack of imagination that is only reinforced by our capitalist reality, and in turn reinforces it. To paraphrase the queen of sci-fi, Ursula Le Guin, capitalism today has a similar allure to the divine right of kings. Using that example, so much of today’s discourse simply assumes that those kings and queens are where they are because they were appointed by some religious or natural law. I view the inability to imagine a world with no borders or a world without patriarchy or without nation states to be within that same tendency. It is why the very best of speculative fiction also imagines alternative systems to our current one through careful world-building. For that matter, it is the same failure as when we see alt-imperialists claim to be anti-imperialists while centering themselves in any analysis, a reality made possible by that very imperialism they supposedly oppose. The irrelevance of our lives – those of us from the ‘global south’, the ‘periphery’ – is what allows these alt-imperialists to be ‘anti-imperialists’ in the first place. Otherwise they would have to deal with our realities just as we are forced to deal with theirs. 

I’m actually curious as to what you believe should happen for grief in the US to be more collective, beyond the easily-instrumentalised/militarised grief like the one that followed 9/11, the sort of grief that we should have seen following hurricane Katrina for example, or the murder of George Floyd. And to add to that, is collective grief even desirable? Personally I think it is largely a numbers game. We need enough people to feel that grief, not everyone. Also, I’ve been wondering lately about the ‘purpose’ to grief, other than it being the natural reaction following a loss. I don’t know whether grief in itself can motivate people in the way I think we must because what is needed to face this world’s problem requires so many of us to be in near-total emergency mode, which I’ll get into more in your question on the ‘apocalypse’ below. This is largely a reflection on the conversation I had with Andrew Arsan on Lebanon – after reviewing his book with the depressingly accurate title of ‘Lebanon, our painfully ordinary country‘ – during the October uprising. He had described the revolutionary potential of hopelessness, something which I had initially agreed with but which I am now having doubts about. I think hopelessness can shake things up, but I don’t know if it can do much more than that on its own, especially long-term. I feel the same way about grief.

Asia Art Tours Ever since I was young, I’ve confused apocalypse for abolition. That the destruction of physical structures was the same as the abolition of the abstract structures that built them. In other words, a hurricane can destroy a gentrifying apartment, a wildfire can consume the office of a private equity firm, an earthquake can topple a colonial statue, but these do not ABOLISH the abstract forces of capitalism and racism that are destroying the earth and whom spawn these physical structures. 

Have you also experienced similar confusion about the differences between APOCALYPSE (a horror that destroys the concrete manifestations of abstract violence… but leaves the abstract violence intact) and ABOLITION (a generative process that takes longer but works to destroy the abstract systems that cause the concrete violence)? What for you is the difference between abolition and apocalypse? 

Joey Ayoub: Anyone who thinks there’s no difference between apocalypse and abolition should visit Lebanon. Our country witnessed one of the worst explosions in modern history and the ruling classes are still comfortable in their halls of powers. We could quite literally see another mass exodus, which wouldn’t even be our first, and they will be left untouched. The ‘international system’ will be indifferent to that, except of course if enough of us are desperate enough to try and reach Fortress Europe’s shores. A system doesn’t collapse because it should collapse, and the structures that make that system possible don’t get abolished because they cause so much suffering. If that were the case, we would have never needed for abolitionist movements as the systems that need to be abolished would have had within them the seeds of their own abolition. That’s partly true in itself I should say, but there’s no law of nature saying that this has to go in a certain direction and not in another. This is one of my issues with dominant -isms on the left such as Marxism (though not all forms) and with the educated left more broadly, the one that sometimes feels like it is spending its entire time on social media these days. I think they make too many assumptions of how entire groups of people – the working class, the underclass, the precariat, the wretched etc – are ‘supposed’ to act in a certain situation, as if humans are nothing more than cogs instead of complicated, messy, individuals in specific contexts at specific times. 

I mentioned ‘emergency mode’ above which is what I consider the necessary response to our problems, the sort of emergency mode that climate scientists are urging us to get into. This likely requires a mix of pragmatism and idealism, to be very grounded in the facts on the ground (knowing the facts on carbon emissions, deforestations etc) while rejecting their continuity when doing so leads to a catastrophe. In other words, we need to be accepting the reality of reality while actively rejecting it in favor of a better reality. It’s like what Yannick Giovanni Marshall told you on your podcast, something I fully agree with. Using the example of the colony, he asks himself whether doing X or Y contributes to dismantling the colony or not. It’s a litmus test. It doesn’t mean that you will always live up to that standard, but it anchors your actions. This is how I view the climate emergency, and it colors almost everything I do, from what I eat to how I travel to how I interact with people and how I engage in ‘casual’ conversations. I genuinely believe that doing anything less than treating the climate emergency as an emergency is profoundly immoral, with horrifying consequences that our brains can barely conceptualise. 

So is the climate catastrophe the apocalypse? It can be. Is it abolition? No. It can be both, but that is both unlikely and undesirable. I don’t want a ‘liberated’ humanity living on the ashes of its destruction. I think that’s the closest conclusion large parts of the left have de-facto reached, whether implicitly or explicitly, the sort of thing fueling either accelerationism or more ‘moderate’ cynicism, and I wholeheartedly reject that. We can do better, and we can learn from those who have actually gone through their own apocalypse long before us. I’m referring here to the indigenous peoples of this world, at least many of the activists and elders and water protectors among them, who have categorically already concluded that which we are still, by and large, too cowardly too conclude: that we are borrowing this planet from future generations, that we are inheriting it from previous generations, and that we owe it to the natural world and to ourselves to deconstruct and end the mess that we are created.

This is why I am an advocate of degrowth, and why I don’t think any long-term solution is possible as long as we are obsessed with the notion that everything everywhere has to continue ‘growing’ at all costs. I honestly don’t find it meaningful that the resources of the destroyed natural world is equitably redistributed among the individuals of the destructive species rather than ‘unjustly’. I fully agree with the most basic causes on the progressive left, but they are not enough in themselves. We’ve got to do better than that.

Asia Art Tours: My Lebanese Grandfather was taken by his family from Lebanon to escape the generational poverty that consumed the Daghers as shepards in the mountains behind Beirut. He grew up so poor that many of his most fond Christmas memories were receiving a simple orange in the Cleveland orphanage where he and his brother fended for themselves. Eventually through battles, struggles and volunteering in the US Army to kill the ‘bad whites’ of the Axis Powers he was able to make a life for himself. He was at one point a PhD student in Middle East Studies, which would have allowed him to continue researching in his native Arabic and embrace his ‘in-between’ identity as a member of the Lebanese Diaspora in America. Instead he married my grandmother, a white woman from a good family, who was available to my grandfather and his ‘otherness’ because she was violent and unstable, thus not suitable marriage material for what ‘ acceptable whiteness’ was at that time in America.

My Grandfather, gave up this PhD to become an English Teacher at a community college in order to support his family. At that point it seems like the ‘Arab otherness’ of my family dies out. My mother was never taught Arabic and growing up around Grandpa Joe, he only spoke Arabic in secret (when communicating with his relatives in Ohio… or once for a brief period where he considered marrying a refugee from Lebanon). He wore his English both as a badge of shame and honor, a brand of the sacrifices he had made to belong. And his children and grand children bore both deep appreciation and soulful regret for the choices Joseph Dagher made.

I wanted to ask you, my friend and someone I truly find kindness in because you seem to accept me for all my flaws… am I still Lebanese? If not what am I? And how do people like me, either poke holes in the flag or are the stray yet vital threads of what nations like Lebanon are? At what point of losing language, religion, cultural markers or the recipes of our grandmothers … do we stop becoming Lebanese and become something else?

Joey Ayoub: I really don’t think there is any one way of being Lebanese. In Lebanon, the question of Lebanese-ness is most often used to exclude those deemed ‘the Other’, especially Palestinians and Syrians, rather than appealing to anything that one might call ‘authentic’. There’s very few things that one can say are distinctly ‘Lebanese’ and, deep down, we probably all feel that. Lebanese-ness is the result of traumatising experiences, and as such is not something that holds positive connotations – not enough, in any case, to undo the negative. This isn’t to mean that there is no potential Lebanese-ness that could be construed positively. As far as I’m concerned, the thing with social constructs is that they are, well, socially constructed. The alternative is to believe that there’s some mythical origins to ‘a people’, which Lebanese nationalists would obviously argue for. So if they are socially constructed they can be socially reconstructed, and they will always be socially reconstructed. Every generation sees dozens of such attempts and you see these attempts between generations too. Part of my Lebanese-ness is in stark contrast with that of my parents’. Their inherent ‘Other’-ness, as the generation that lived and witnessed the war, makes my Lebanese-ness very different than theirs. And even within the generations, there are obvious class, regional and sectarian differences. I can automatically recognise ‘myself’ in the people of Mount Lebanon in a way that may take longer for people from the South or the North, for example. That is simply the result of political decisions taken long before I was even born. I can actively struggle against that and urge wider unity, but it doesn’t mean that it comes naturally.

I’m of course channeling Benedict Anderson here and his concept of an imagined community. The imagined community of Lebanon is constantly being redefined and reinterpreted. In its current version, as best as I can tell, it can welcome descendents of those who migrated more easily than, say, a Palestinian who has been living in Lebanon for sixty years. In that regards, your Lebanese-ness wouldn’t be in doubt. You’d just be viewed by most, in my opinion, as ‘of Lebanese origins’, or a part of the diaspora, which is very large as you know. Lebanese-ness is accessible to you; you just need to live in Lebanon for some time, accumulate some experiences, and that’s about it. Personally, I don’t even know if that is something desirable, or even healthy for that matter, but I really never presume to know for others. So in some ways I’d reply to your question with another question: do you think you need to feel Lebanese?

I’m not exactly sure when your grandfather immigrated to the US, but I’m guessing it was around the time when the divide between Lebanon and Syria was still being created. If you think of the Mahjar poets – of the Lebanese and Syrian diaspora in the US – such as Nasib Arida, Kahlil Gibran, Abd al-Masih Haddad, and Mikhail Naimy, some are Lebanese while others are Syrians, by today’s definitions. Whereas Haddad and Arida’s hometown, Homs, now feels like it is the furthest place imaginable from my home village in Mount Lebanon, that was obviously not true at the time for Gibran and Naimy, who were also from Mount Lebanon. This is true despite the fact that it would have taken longer back then to travel between the two areas than today (a roughly three hours car drive). Today, Homs is further away from Mount Lebanon than it was a hundred years ago. It is further away because the violent temporality imposed upon it by the Assad regime from within Syria and by Lebanese xenophobia from within Lebanon created de-facto borders even when the Syria-Lebanon border was ‘open’. This is the bordering process required by nation states and those within them who divide the land and struggle for capital. The separation between ‘Lebanon’ and ‘Syria’ was of course done by force, with quite a significant percentage of the population suddenly finding themselves having to be called Lebanese overnight. As is typical with the formation of nation states, it was a top-down process, imposed by the bourgeoisie at the time with the support of foreign powers (in this case France). Here I’ll briefly state that I am not a pan-Syrianist, either, and I am definitely not a pan-Arabist, but I do feel an affinity towards that idea of ‘a Lebanon’ or ‘a Syria’ that was created by those who had left them. I feel some connection towards the peoples of the levant that comes relatively easily to me.

I have felt this bond of brotherhood and sisterhood with Syrians and Palestinians outside of Lebanon much more so than within Lebanon. In Lebanon, I am the Lebanese, first and foremost. I am the citizen, and they are the refugees and/or the workers. There is a power dynamic that is imposed between us, whether I want to or not. That gap is further widened by my class and my sect and my region: ‘middle class’, ‘christian’, ‘from Mount Lebanon’. Outside of Lebanon, I am a Lebanese-Palestinian from the Levant, Al-Mashriq or Bilad Al-Sham, and the Levant includes Palestine and Syria and, depending on who you talk to, Jordan. Today it would be more accurate to say Israel/Palestine of course, although that’s a difficult topic best reserved for another time. The Syrians and Palestinians I’ve met in London or Edinburgh or Geneva or Paris share that displacement (or that of their parents) with me, although theirs is usually much more violent. In other words, the circle of experiences is wider, and the three groups are allowed in (this is also true of Jordanians, but there’s a nuance there that I can’t get into here, and which has to do with the Jordanian government’s politics).

So when I think of my Lebanese-ness today, I just know that I am one because I grew up there, and that’s about it. I’m Lebanese because I’ve struggled all my life against Lebanon, against the sectarian rot that’s been murdering my homeland from within for decades, against the petty nationalism that is evoked as a sort of band-aid over that rot. I love Lebanon, I love its land and its mountains, I love the cedars that we’re murdering, I love the sea that we’re murdering, I love the incredible wildlife that we’ve almost completely exterminated. That is what I love. I love Lebanon’s potential. I think our cities are more diverse than we usually admit. We’ve just never had that opportunity, for the most part, to recognise that reality. So, I love that Lebanon, but I do not love the nation state of Lebanon, I have no sympathy for the Lebanese Republic, itself a barely-concealed lie maintained by mass murderers and oligarchs, and I do not believe that those who call themselves Lebanese in modern Lebanon deserve happiness and dignity more than those who do not call themselves Lebanese. To me, if Lebanon is to ever make any sense – to itself, first and foremost – it needs to recognise its residency-based complexities. There are people in Lebanon today that are not considered Lebanese but who are an inherent component of ‘Lebanese’ life. The migrant workers, the refugees, and even some ‘foreign’ middle class residents (a few artists and journalists) who have been in Lebanon for so long that they often know it more than ‘the Lebanese’ who are so obsessed with their regional differences. We scapegoat Syrians and Palestinians and Ethiopians and Sri Lankans in order not to deal with one another. This is what some of my relatives mean when they say they are proud of being Lebanese. They believe Mount Lebanon is Lebanon. They’d include Beirut, but they do not extend that pride to a northerner or a southerner, not in any meaningful way in any case, I can guarantee you that. The only thing that usually united them with other Lebanese is the fact that they’re not Syrians or Palestinians, and so on.

So this is my long way to answer yes, you are Lebanese. I just don’t think Lebanese-ness is developed enough to deserve the beautiful people who want to have that connection with Lebanon. If we ever get beyond our current predicament, if we ever develop an identity that’s more inclusive than our current one(s), we might see that potential Lebanese-ness that I think we all desire. I am absolutely convinced that it can happen. The potential is there, I’ve seen it, but it needs to be allowed to grow, and I do not think this is likely anytime soon.

Asia Art Tours: As Yangyang Cheng so brilliantly puts for Hong Kong Refugees, will those fleeing Lebanon after the explosion, these exiles have to prove their worth to capitalism in order to be accepted as refugee, like what’s happening to Hong Kongers?

  • And what does it mean to survive in a system where being accepted as a refugee means you have to be able to thrive in the systems that create these disasters (that create the refugees) in the first place?

Joey Ayoub: They will definitely have to prove their worth to capitalism, and they will likely have to do so for their entire lives. Most people in these situations may never feel like they’re living for themselves anymore, that they have individual aspirations and things to do or achieve or experience while living on this planet, because they will not be given the time to do so. Many will have already internalised this logic by now, having been prepared for it from a young age. We grew up being told to secure a second passport as being just as important, if not more so, than a college degree. So in our case it’s not just being imposed on us in the ‘host country’, but we’re being prepared for it our entire lives. It’s what I’ve come to understand more recently. My years in Europe (2015-) were as close to pre-destined as it gets. This can leave you feeling disarmed, vulnerable, because you realise you’ve had little choices in your own life, that you’re merely the afterthought of UK or EU or Swiss politicians because, ultimately, you do not have the required papers to even have an opinion that they have to be concerned about, if only temporarily and barely. So what is to be done in this situation? Sometimes I have the energy to fight it, and sometimes I don’t. The latter basically means that I often give up, because I have no other choice.

As to your second question, I think this is very well put, and in some ways most people alive today live some version of that. It’s why it’s so disheartening to see residents of a place react so negatively to refugees coming to their ‘imagined community’ – Europe or the USA, for example, or Lebanon for that matter as if they or their kids or grandkids will never find themselves in similar positions one day. In Lebanon, we see former refugees and/or their children and grandchildren reject Syrian refugees. They push them out in order to push away the possibility of that ever happening to them (again). Do you see what I mean? The more ‘the hosts’ recognise the reality of ‘the refugees’, the more the differences between the two, already fragile, risk becoming irrelevant. ‘The refugees’ must remain within that category for whoever doing the Othering to remain comfortable enough to ignore the world. I’m channeling both James Baldwin and Zygmunt Bauman here. Baldwin would say that the oppressed knows the oppressors better than the oppressors know the oppressed, because the oppressed are forced their entire lives to be aware of the oppressors while the oppressors rarely need to know anything. It’s like that ‘paradoxical’ fact, that it’s expensive to be poor, more expensive than being rich. It’s more knowledge-demanding to be the oppressed, much more so than being the oppressors. The same goes for those who live in relatively privileged ‘host’ communities. There are exceptions here, such as the Greeks of Lesbos, already dealing with an economic crisis, and who were abandoned by the EU to ‘deal’ with even more desperate refugees and migrants. It’s never a ‘them’ versus an ‘us’, but that’s the driving force of today’s world politics. Those Greeks can be seduced by pan-European nationalism to exclude ‘the refugees’ and remain ‘the hosts’, but this requires the Europeans to remember to pander to the Greeks, and they don’t always bother to do so.

To the above, you can add Bauman’s notions of a precariat and ‘liquid fear’ to that. We are all, potentially, the precariat. The more years pass by, the more I think the line between capital and labor will be blurred, especially if the current digitisation trends continue [who’s doing the labor on Google and Facebook, where it’s your data that is the product sold to the clients, the advertisers?] Mix that in with the very predictable upcoming crises that will come from our addiction to fossil fuel and mass-produced animal agriculture and one can easily conclude that we all risk precariat status. With that knowledge, it is difficult to believe that 2020 will be an exceptionally bad year in the coming decade, quite the contrary. I think we need to be honest to ourselves and understand that the coming decade will likely be very difficult, as long as the current trends continue. So if we’re all at risk of becoming precariat, what does that leave those with so much capital? In my view, they risk turning into ‘moral monsters’, to use James Baldwin again, a term he used to describe the people who are invested in their own whiteness. The rich spend so much capital to avoid dealing with the reality of the world that their capital has created. They don’t want to drown with the rest of us.

The language here is accidentally revealing too. Liquid fear. Our fear is liquid because our reality, in a world where multinational corporations can have more power than nation states, where we can’t rely on even the few months left in 2020, let alone 2021, or 2030 and 2040, is ever-changing. It is liquid because many are losing the certainty they once had, post-WWII, that they won’t have to deal with what most humans have had to deal with. But isn’t it also liquid because those who are fleeing their homes are forced to take the sea as it is less treacherous than a land full of humans and their borders? Their fear is literally liquid, not just metaphorically. They fear the sea, and the land is deadlier. And isn’t it also liquid because global warming is causing rising sea levels which is making all of these even worse? God, or whatever she’s called, sure loves irony.

Asia Art Tours: The title of this exchange is Lebanon as a warning from the future? What is the warning? And should we be trying to stop what’s about to come for coming to pass or is it too late? If so should we spend our time preparing?

Joey Ayoub: Well, if we wish to be more accurate about this we’d say that every place is a warning from the future because the future doesn’t exist yet. It just so happens that tiny Lebanon got its fair share of ‘the future’ in a very short period of time, so it’s a ‘convenient’ case study. Now, the question is will those outside of Lebanon learn from its experience, or from that of Hong Kong, Belarus, Chile, BLM and so on? Will the Lebanese learn from the Syrians, the Belarusians from Hongkongers, the Chileans from the Thai? I don’t know. There’s some indications that there’s greater awareness than there previously was, yes, but perhaps it will take more time for us to ‘see’ the results of the waves of uprisings of 2019 and 2020.

As for whether it’s too late, I think this again goes back to the notion that the future doesn’t exist yet. It’s currently being created with today’s facts, so our concern should be about changing those facts for a different future. It’s depressingly straightforward, which leaves our failures so painful to comprehend. But yes, we should spend our time preparing. We shouldn’t just be ‘ready’ for the apocalypse (as much as is actually possible), which means building community resilience, but we should make abolition more likely today. We should create the facts on the ground that will make abolition more likely. The latter is done by actively weakening the more extremist factions of the right while also weakening the ‘moderate’ beliefs that allow such extremes to exist in the first place, namely xenophobia, nationalism, racism, misogyny, transphobia and so on, those components of modern societies that are still considered legitimate and acceptable as long as they’re coated in ‘respectable’ language (and not even always). I guess this goes back to what I replied above. I want to prevent the apocalypse and I want abolition, but the two are not necessarily related. We might have some form of abolition without preventing the (climate) apocalypse, if we assume that abolition only involves the human species. If abolition includes what we call the natural world, there could be some hope of achieving both abolition and a sustainable future.

But you know, Lebanon isn’t the only ‘warning for the future’. The US is one as well. The arrogant empire that thought it defeated history just because the other arrogant empire lost, instead of seeing that loss as the warning that it was. This is the problem with simplistic binaries. The US is still recovering from the most absurd elements of the cold war today because Americans are still largely committed to the belief that they ‘won’, rather than trying to understand why the Soviets ‘lost’. The USSR had turned into a monstrosity under Stalin, much worse than before, largely obscuring the more interesting and potentially positive experiments, and it never properly recovered from the 40s and 50s. How does a mighty empire collapse? Why do they always collapse? It’s been barely 30 years and already this feels like asking a question about the distant past when it is in fact a question of the present. It is the same question about major powers today, from Turkey to China to Russia. So if the US is a warning from the future, where does BLM fit into the present? I’m asking you this because you’re an American, but also because I know you’re very aware of the cult of whiteness and how it also affects those that are ‘white passing’.

Asia Art Tours: Both you and I have spoken to countless activists who’ve been crushed for listening to the ‘warning’ and trying to stop it from coming to pass. Lately for Lebanon when we spoke you said you had given away literally all your money. As things get worse globally, will you continue to make yourself vulnerable? How do we remain generous and giving, in a time where survival seems more and more at risk?

Joey Ayoub: That’s such a great question that couldn’t be more timely. Very shortly after I said that I started working on a financial plan to have some savings on me because I’m not just directly responsible for myself but also for my partner, our pet, some members of my family and a few friends. So let me put it this way. I believe that my need to feel safe is justified. It isn’t just justified because I’ve gone through difficult things like most people who live(d) in Lebanon – albeit to various extents – but as a matter of principle. I believe that no human should feel unsafe, with the only exception being those humans who are engaged in actively making others unsafe and when making those humans feel unsafe is the only way to fight back. That’s a very specific scenario, so the general principle stands.

This is something that I didn’t always actively believe. In fact, and perhaps paradoxically, the more vulnerable my surroundings were, the less vulnerable I felt. Many people speak about that, about ‘missing’ the regularity of the war in Lebanon for example, because at least they knew that when the bombings stopped, they probably won’t start again until the next day. It’s how I felt about the global pandemic. I was worried for people, but I was less afraid of the irregularity of the pandemic because I think I was already ‘there’. I was relatively ‘okay’ with changing my daily habits to prevent the spread of the virus. That’s both a privilege and a curse, but let’s put that aside for another time.

One thing I think most people still don’t understand, however, is that this feeling is always only temporary. Soon enough, one falls back into the same kind of insecurities about life and the future. This is why I insist so much on talking about time and not just space. It’s not so much whether I can continue making myself vulnerable, but for how long? If I have an illness to worry about, I obviously should try and reduce the risks. Those risks will also depend on where I live and what my access to capital is like. If I live in a country with universal healthcare and decent services, I may take ‘more risks’ by, for example, sending a friend some money if they need it. If I have to prioritise saving every penny because there is no universal healthcare, I’d have to make different calculations. My willingness to be vulnerable would thus be dependent on whatever needs to be done in a particular situation. This actually reminds me of what Sho Konishi told you, about the importance of ‘doing seemingly self-contradictory practices’ to allow you to ‘create and belong to another temporality’. I very much agree with this, and it is a conclusion I’ve reached the hard way. So anyway, I had given away all my money because I knew that I could take that risk. I was already in Switzerland, with university funding on its way. My partner’s salary was keeping us afloat and whatever I had left – not much, to be totally honest – would’ve made a real difference to a number of people, so my calculation was rather straightforward. I try and reduce other people’s risks even if ‘at my own expense’ but within a certain limit, and that limit in turn depends on how at-risk I am. It’s not exactly a perfect system, but it does the job for now.

As for how to remain generous and giving in a time of increasing risks, my answer is to act the way I act with my close friends. As a general rule, whoever is more financially comfortable makes the effort to help the others. If I have a salary and my friend doesn’t, I’m paying for lunch. More than that, it really depends on each person and their circumstances. What I would say to people is that it’s not your fault for being born in capitalism, but it doesn’t mean we have no moral responsibilities. Create seemingly self-contradictory practices to counter this world’s problems, put your heart into doing this, fail a lot of times, and always try and be kind to yourself and others. This requires doing two things at the same time, to be critical while also giving yourself some time to breathe and recover.


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