The Precarious Human


The Precarious Human

Along with other Middle Eastern expatriates in Dubai, where I somewhat reluctantly live, I watch my country of origin daily squirm beneath the enraged soles of many an “angry Arab.” I listen as the self-proclaimed educated, Westernised, worldly elite of the Middle East that surround me in this anomalously stable Arab city label their countrymen bajam – barbarians, savages sub-humans – as a means of explaining away their violent behavior by pinning it to a primordial tendency they have yet to outgrow; an archaic culture and religion they have yet to discard. We convince ourselves that we would have done revolution differently; that we would have known what to do with democracy; that we would never have been and never will be capable of such “degenerate” actions.

It is popularly assumed that there are certain natural modes of behavior towards which all “normal” humans are inclined, and from which any kind of deviance places one squarely in the realm of “abnormality”. When faced with a distant violence, we tend to ask why it occurred. We attempt to link it to a flaw in a person, population, religion, or culture – a flaw from which we as spectators are free.

When blanketed and surrounded by war however, as was Palestinian author Jean Said Makdisi waswhile living in Beirut in the 1970s and 80s, the whys that are hypothesised to ease the conscience of the now not-so-distant spectator become less convincing. Makdisi’s semi-autobiographical novel, Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir (1990) documents the ways in which her humanity was challenged through the experience of war. At a moment when Arabs are beginning to break away from each other, to Orientalise themselves to an unprecedented degree — working individually to prove to the West that they are unlike the despicable majority, rather than collaborating collectively to challenge primordialist stereotypes and trace developments back to their conditions of possibility — it might be worthwhile to reread this memoir by a cosmopolitan, intellectual Arab, whose shattered assumptions might just be able to undermine our own.

Makdisi’s memoir highlights the horrifying limitlessness of human action when mired in violence and war; the potential we all possess, if placed in such unfortunate circumstances, to inflict a boundless immensity of pain

“Outsiders,” writes Makdisi, “look at Beirut from a wary distance, as though it had nothing to do with them; as though, through a protective glass partition, they were watching with immunity a patient thrash about in mortal agony, suffering a ghastly virus contracted in forbidden and faraway places.” They speak of it, she says, “as if it were an aberration of the human experience: It is not. Beirut was a city like any other and its people were a people like any other. What happened here could, I think, happen anywhere.”

The violence that gripped Lebanon for fifteen years is often explained through references to the “disease” of sectarianism, an unfortunate malady from which, it is said, the Lebanese have always suffered, an irrational and pre-modern sensibility that insists on resurfacing again and again. This violence is not seen as something that a “good modern human subject” is capable of.

Makdisi’s memoir however, highlights the horrifying limitlessness of human action when mired in violence and war; the potential we all possess, if placed in such unfortunate circumstances, to inflict a boundless immensity of pain. As the memoir progresses, Makdisi comes to the realisation that not only is “every passing stranger” a “potential murderer,” but so is she. She describes her reaction to the image of villagers in the South violently beating, kicking and cursing at the body of a dead Israeli pilot. Her young sons asked what she would do if they had been killed in an air raid. “I hope,” she responds, “I wouldn’t do that.” Reflecting on this statement, she revises her response. “Who was I, sitting comfortably in Beirut, to disapprove their reaction, their impotence in the face of the continuous Israeli air raids, destroying year after year their people, their homes, their crops, their lands, translated into this one mad gesture of revenge and hate?”

Revolution and blood often go hand-in-hand. Photo courtesy of Flickr: Crethi Plethi.

She begins to wonder if, with a little less comfort, luck and familial support, she too might embrace such violence. Meditating on the infamous massacre that took place in the neighborhood of Karantina — and that was attributed to the murderers being high on cocaine — she writes:

“[W]e couldn’t believe such cruelty to be naturally possible. Believing them [to be] on cocaine left our humanity intact…but such an explanation is harder to believe today. Too often, too many people have done unspeakable things. They are not from one district or one community or one class or one religion. They are among us all; it seems, from us all…I have lived these things, and I want to know what they mean. I want to know whether I can escape the apparently inescapable conclusion that it is in the nature of the beast, that any of us could do it, that I could do it. Could I, if pushed far enough, yet do it? I have not seen my baby’s body mangled in the dust or my fiancee’s raped body lying in the street, legs wide apart and eyes blank. I have not seen my father dishonored in death or my mother’s nakedness exposed to the world. I have not seen my beautiful, strong, young husband reduced to unidentifiable bits of flesh…I have not had any of the experiences that have become part of daily life in this tortured land. And since I haven’t, I no longer dare say that I would not do such a cruel thing as have been done.”

Witnessing the sordid reality around her, Makdisi comes to realise that such violence is not the product of individuals who are somehow less than human, who possess a fundamental flaw or deficiency, or who are infected with some kind of malady. Rather, she recognises the very precariousness of humanity, its ability to be broken, defeated and made unrecognisable under certain conditions.

Makdisi confronts us with the fragility of our own subjectivity. In so doing, her memoir forces us to think critically about the ways in which we pass judgment on others, to think about whether or not we really understand or are capable of understanding what it is we are judging. A recognition of the fragility of human identity when faced with such extraordinary conditions, while unsettling, should push us to think of hows instead of whys: to examine the conditions of possibility that give rise to violence and that can have such disturbing and destructive effects on the subjectivity of an individual. Maybe then we can look for ways to prevent the reemergence of such conditions, rather than persecuting people on the grounds of what we fallaciously label their sub-humanness, linked to cultural or religious traditions or particular ways of life, instead of the more realistic mitigating, subjectivity-forming, and distorting circumstances of life.

Photo courtesy of Flickr: Farfahinne

Sophie Chamas is a freelance Lebanese writer based in Dubai, and co-editor of the Middle East-focused online publication Mashallah News. A graduate of NYU’s master’s program in Near Eastern Studies, Sophie’s writing has appeared in the likes of Jadaliyya, The State, Harper’s BazaarArt Arabia, REORIENT, Al Jazeera English, and The Outpost, among others. Her essay “Running in Place” is part of the recently published anthology of travel stories The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. Never quite capable of settling down, she continues to consider herself “in between” countries.