Ethnographic commentary on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (by Estella Carpi – September 2012)

Image from Museum of Resistance in Lebanon; photograph by Estella Carpi

Syrian refugees in Lebanon: when the Apollonian cannot expect anything from the Dionysian

by Estella Carpi

While based in Lebanon, I personally find no way of getting out of the emotional whirlwind of suffering that the Syrian revolution, the merciless state repression and the subsequent armament of the revolutionaries have been giving rise to for 18 months. Without aiming at prematurely assessing the size of the emergency response to the “Syrian humanitarian crisis”, I would like to discuss here the Lebanese phenomenological approach to the current events by using the Syrian refugees’ lens.

Although used to regarding Syria as a model of stability and harmony, and as a place where people allegedly identify through the imposed order, the Lebanese suddenly find themselves taking care of the Syrian Leviathan. If Lebanon has always embodied the Dionysian, with its several war scars, social open wounds and its incontrollable emotionalities, Syria has always represented the rational, organized and balance-keeper Apollonian to the outsider’s eye.

The long date silenced political dissent has often been expressed through the art works of the exiled. A. (a Syrian whose name I withhold) tells me about the Syrian joke of calling “jahesh” a side of the coin representing Hafez al Assad’s face, which in Syrian dialect means “donkey”. The topos of the regime’s stupidity has been frequent in Syrian narratives for many years. The counter-rhetoric opposing such an Apollonian image of order has recently emerged due to the current “humanitarian crisis in Syria”. I recently met A. and R., who used to take part in demonstrations in Damascus and Homs: both experienced the bitterness of detention and torture, and were later conscripted by the Syrian Arab Army to fight for the regime’s survival. In other words, illogical strategies seem to be a further powerful means of state repression.

Even though the potential future Syrian perspective is not portrayed as “terroristic” in the anti-loyalist international propaganda, yet it is often depicted as “Muslim Brotherhood-friendly”, exclusively Sunni and unavoidably radicalist.
M., 23 years old, tells me he has been asked by Lebanese activists the reason why he decided to fast during Ramadan in Beirut, while affirming to be a progressive supporter of the revolution. This account shows us how living up to religious tenets is constantly and arbitrarily correlated to political conservativism. A., who arrived in Lebanon few months ago, was asked instead “why Syrians complain about their state, if education is for free, at least”. What is undercut here is, of course, the impossibility to get any kind of education but that allowed by Assad’s regime. R. even mentions suspiciousness of one Lebanese NGO when he entered Lebanon and asked for aid. After telling them his story, he was asked “what kind of sources he was using in Syria to be able to get this kind of information”. When your “information sources” are bombs, you do shiver at such a question and you would reply that, luckily, you were still in your hometown during the regime’s shelling “to be able to witness to what is really going on beyond the borders”.

The movie “The Suffering Grasses” by Iara Lee has recently closed the Lebanese Film Festival in Beirut. I was among a few people attending this documentary on the Syrian revolution, and most of them were actually foreigners like me. The movie was aimed at denouncing that when the “elephants” – so to speak, the Masters of War – go to war, it is the “grasses” that suffer. The post-movie Q&A session was canceled “due to security reasons” and “to maintain stability”. “Weird… in this country it’s normal to kidnap 40 people to exchange hostages, but it’s not conceivable to discuss about violence, regime change, (il)legitimacy of the armed resistance and ongoing genocide”, commented my friend S.

The large Lebanese dissent on the Syrian regime has not as one might expect become a real object of debate, despite the several anti-Assad demonstrations throughout Lebanon I personally witnessed. These are frequently interpreted from foreigners and some locals as a mere political instrument of the March 14 coalition, rather than genuine support for the victims of the Syrian state repression. Once again, the above mentioned communication-phobia is able to abort conceptual and material evolutions in Lebanon, a perpetual transit country for regional refugees.

Through the construction of the Syrian humanitarian subject, that somehow becomes a brand-new suffering body in what Bertrand Badie in 2002 named “pietas market”, the ever-present Western “Streben” of lyrical missionarism in the region, although to a far smaller extent, is back on the road after the Lebanese July war and Gaza’s humanitarian crises. As for other refugees in Lebanon, such as Iraqis, Sudanese and Palestinians – if I just cite the big numbers – Syrians, epitomizing the status of neo-refugees, get publicly invisible and neglected by the average Lebanese citizen. As it happened in the case of Palestinians seeking refuge after the 1948 Nakba, the normal Lebanese everydayness and the lives of Syrians lately flowing into Lebanon run parallel. The Syrian Revolution supporters, that are therefore used to being on the state margin, are not allowed to reshape the Lebanese local consciousness and contribute to healing its pathological public amnesia, of which the responsibility has often been disguised by “state-promoted” policies.

F. vents out his resentment to have welcomed during the 2006 war a Lebanese family in his house near Zabadani – a Syrian town close to the Lebanese border – and not to receive support from them now that their “agency roles” have been switched, according to what he says. “Assad’s loyalists who fear violence and want to come to Lebanon can easily seek refuge in the shelters provided by Hezbollah: “I’m sure they are far better than us, who got little instead”, says M. There are now official sources to ascertain this, but there is still wonder for whether and how the Assad opponents too find shelter under the protection of their oppressor’s allied. Also, what should not be overlooked in the latter account is that, once again, humanitarianism seems to further feed historically changing community hierarchies and trigger vicious circles of agency and passivity, mutual expectations, gratefulness to human mercy or dissatisfaction about compensation strategies.

The willingness to get greater awareness on the Syrian issue and build direct contacts with the “new non-citizens” of Lebanese society is rarely present except among local humanitarian actors, already plugged into international networks, predominantly representing a segment of Lebanese middle class, and then “affording” to be engaged in social issues. In a nutshell, the refugee’s body in Lebanon is exclusively enfranchised through its ability to produce labor in the humanitarian market; it loses any cultural value, meant as vital contribution to social memory and local activism within what is still wrongly termed “host” society.

I recently spoke to two different organizations engaged in emergency relief: both highlighted the increasing urgency of breaking rules to assist shelter and aid seekers not registered with UNHCR. Both providers boasted their primary goal on the assistance currently provided to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. While they compete for the Nobel Prize for humanitarian efforts in the days of the Syrian “crisis” – and while I cynically disparage the eschatological instincts giving birth to a new Lebanese-International humanitarian market – the umpteenth individual “rah aala beyt khalto” to be tortured (way of saying in the Levantine dialects “getting to jail”, “detained by the regime”), if not already died or massacred.

Note: All identities quoted in this article have been protected by using the initial letter of their name; the home town in Syria as well as the different confessional “belongings” of my interlocutors have been deliberately omitted.

Estella Carpi is currently a PhD Fellow at the American University of Beirut and a PhD Candidate at The University of Sydney.


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