Vertical fields

I’ve just been reading and thinking about Lisa Parks‘s short but immensely suggestive essay, ‘Drones, Vertical Mediation, and the Targeted Class’, in Feminist Studies 42 (2016) 227-35. Lisa develops her ideas about vertical mediation but at the end of the essay she illustrates them through an art installation staged in Beirut last spring. This is what she says:

In an effort to publicize the drone’s vertical mediations—the way the technology uses the vertical field in efforts to materially reform life on earth—I collaborated with a group of Lebanese and Slovenian artists (Marc Abou Farhat, Tadej Fius, Elie Mouhanna, and Miha Vipotnik) to create a multimedia installation titled Spectral Configuration. The installation was part of the Vertical Collisions exhibition at the Station Art Gallery in Beirut in May 2015. The installation’s centerpiece is a massive, elevated, four-meter-long, supine human body, hand-crocheted out of thin aluminum wire. As it soars in mid-air, the wiry surface of this colossal corpse turns translucent as multiple media projections, made from video footage leaked from the US military-industrial complex, flicker around and upon it. These electromagnetic projections envelop the silvery drone-like body within the luminous footprint of world his- tory and militarization, cycling through a series of spectral suspects, framed targets, and aerial strikes that appear in visible light and infrared.

Circumnavigating the earth on an endless flight path, this “spectral configuration” not only captures and reflects light and heat waves, it remediates life on earth, altering one’s disposition to the sky, the ground, and the skin…  To make Spectral Configuration, we used the same global information networks, geospatial images, and video-capture technologies utilized each day by US drone operators. The difference, however, was that we commandeered these devices to conceptualize and produce a form and an event that would question the militarization of the vertical field by enacting it on a micro-scale and trying to make its effects intelligible and palpable to publics beyond drone war. By staging the militarization of the vertical field in a country adjacent to, yet not subject to drone war (Lebanon), Spectral Configuration also spoke to the exploitation of borders and associative relations by US drone operators and aroused concerns about the usage of the technology in the region.

Paris of/in the Middle East

Paris:Peace

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for last night’s co-ordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, calling them the ‘first of the storm’ and castigating the French capital as ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’.   Walter Benjamin‘s celebrated ‘capital of the nineteenth century’ has been called many things, of course, and as I contemplated the symbol that has now gone viral (above), designed by Jean Jullien, I realised that Paris had been the stage for the 1919 Peace Conference that not only established the geopolitical settlement after the First World War but also accelerated the production of today’s ‘Middle East’ by awarding ‘mandates’ to both Britain and France and crystallising the secret Sykes-Picot agreement struck between the two powers in 1916 (more on that from the Smithsonian here).

Margaret MacMillan has a spirited summary of the conference here, with some lively side-swipes at the astonishing lack of geographical knowledge displayed by the principal protagonists.  Much on my mind was the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon:

French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon

For as I watched Friday night’s terrifying events in Paris unfold, I had also been reminded of the horrors visited upon Beirut the evening before.

Two suicide bombers detonated their explosives in Burj el-Barajneh in the city’s southern suburbs; the attacks were carefully timed for the early evening, when the streets were full of families gathering after work and crowds were leaving mosques after prayers: they killed 43 people and injured more than 200 others.

Islamic State issued a statement saying that ’40 rafideen– a pejorative term for Shiite Muslims used by Sunni Islamists – were killed in the “security operation”’ and claimed the attacks were in retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war.

beirut60s

In the 1950s and 60s Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ (above) – widely seen as more chic, more cosmopolitan than the ‘Paris-on-the-Nile’ created by Francophile architects and planners west of the old city of Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Now I’ve always been troubled by these city switchings – the ‘Venice of the North’ is another example – because they marginalise what is so distinctive about the cities in question and crush the creativity that is surely at the very heart of their urbanity.

And yet, after last night, I can see a different point in the politics of comparison (from Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner to the post 9/11 insistence that “we are all New Yorkers…”).  More accurately, in the politics of non-comparison: as Chris Graham asks (and answers): why the silence over what happened in Beirut on Thursday?  Why no mobilisation of the news media and no interruptions to regular programmes on TV or radio?  Why no anguished personal statements from Obama, Cameron or, yes, Hollande?

Beirut:Paris

Nobody has put those questions with more passion and justice than Elie Fares writing from Beirut:

I woke up this morning to two broken cities. My friends in Paris who only yesterday were asking what was happening in Beirut were now on the opposite side of the line. Both our capitals were broken and scarred, old news to us perhaps but foreign territory to them….

Amid the chaos and tragedy of it all, one nagging thought wouldn’t leave my head. It’s the same thought that echoes inside my skull at every single one of these events, which are becoming sadly very recurrent: we don’t really matter.

When my people were blown to pieces on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, the headlines read: explosion in Hezbollah stronghold, as if delineating the political background of a heavily urban area somehow placed the terrorism in context.

When my people died on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, world leaders did not rise in condemnation. There were no statements expressing sympathy with the Lebanese people. There was no global outrage that innocent people whose only fault was being somewhere at the wrong place and time should never have to go that way or that their families should never be broken that way or that someone’s sect or political background should never be a hyphen before feeling horrified at how their corpses burned on cement. Obama did not issue a statement about how their death was a crime against humanity; after all what is humanity but a subjective term delineating the worth of the human being meant by it?

Here we might pause to remind ourselves that most of the victims of Islamic State have been Muslims (see, for example, here and here).

Here Hamid Dabashi‘s reflections are no less acute:

In a speech expressing his solidarity and sympathy with the French, US President Barack Obama said, “This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

Of course, the attack on the French is an attack on humanity, but is an attack on a Lebanese, an Afghan, a Yazidi, a Kurd, an Iraqi, a Somali, or a Palestinian any less an attack “on all of humanity and the universal values that we share”? What is it exactly that a North American and a French share that the rest of humanity is denied sharing?

In his speech, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking as a European, was emphatic about “our way of life”, and then addressing the French he added: “Your values are our values, your pain is our pain, your fight is our fight, and together, we will defeat these terrorists.”

What exactly are these French and British values? Can, may, a Muslim share them too – while a Muslim? Or must she or he first denounce being a Muslim and become French or British before sharing those values?

These are loaded terms, civilisational terms, and culturally coded registers. Both Obama and Cameron opt to choose terms that decidedly and deliberately turn me and millions of Muslims like me to their civilisational other.

They make it impossible for me to remain the Muslim that I am and join them and millions of other people in the US and the UK and the EU in sympathy and solidarity with the suffering of the French.

As a Muslim I defy their provincialism, and I declare my sympathy and solidarity with the French; and I do so, decidedly, pointedly, defiantly, as a Muslim.

When Arabs or Muslims die in the hands of the selfsame criminal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gangs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, they are reduced to their lowest common denominator and presumed sectarian denominations, overcoming and camouflaging our humanity. But when French or British or US citizens are murdered, they are raised to their highest common abstractions and become the universal icons of humanity at large.

Why? Are we Muslims not human? Does the murder of one of us not constitute harm to the entire body of humanity?

BUTLER Frames of WarElie’s and Hamid’s questions are multiple anguished variations of Judith Butler‘s trenchant demand: why are these lives deemed grievable and not those others?

To ask this is not to minimise the sheer bloody horror of mass terrorism in Paris nor to marginalise the terror, pain and suffering inflicted last night on hundreds of innocents – and also affecting directly or indirectly thousands and thousands of others.

In fact the question assumes a new urgency in the wake of what happened in Paris – where I think the most telling comparison is with Beirut and not with the attacks on Charlie Hebdo (see my commentary here) – because the extreme right (the very same people who once elected to stuff “Freedom Fries” down their throats) has lost no time in using last night’s events to ramp up their denigration of Syrian refugees and their demands for yet more bombing (and dismally failing to see any connection between the two).  You can see something of what I mean here.

And so I suggest we reflect on Jason Burke‘s commentary on Islamic State’s decision to ‘go global’ and its tripartite strategy of what he calls ‘terrorise, mobilise, polarise’.  The three are closely connected, but it’s the last term that is crucial:

In February this year, in a chilling editorial in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Isis laid out its own strategy to eliminate what the writer, or writers, called “the grey zone”.

This was, Isis said, what lay between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned. It was home, too, to all those who had yet to commit to the forces of either side.

The grey zone, Isis claimed, had been “critically endangered [since] the blessed operations of September 11th”, as “these operations showed the world” the two camps that mankind must choose between.

Over the years, since successive violent acts had narrowed the grey zone to the point where by the end of 2014 “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.

extinction-of-the-grayzone

More from Ben Norton here.  The imaginative geographies of Islamic State overlap with those spewed by the extreme right in Europe and North America and, like all imaginative geographies, they have palpable effects: not fifty shades of grey but fifty versions of supposedly redemptive violence.

UPDATE (1):  For more on these questions – and the relevance of Butler’s work– see Carolina Yoko Furusho‘s essay ‘On Selective Grief’ at Critical Legal Thinking here.

As it happens, Judith is in Paris, and posted a short reflection on Verso’s blog here.  She ends with these paragraphs:

My wager is that the discourse on liberty will be important to track in the coming days and weeks, and that it will have implications for the security state and the narrowing versions of democracy before us. One version of liberty is attacked by the enemy, another version is restricted by the state. The state defends the version of liberty attacked as the very heart of France, and yet suspends freedom of assembly (“the right to demonstrate”) in the midst of its mourning and prepares for an even more thorough militarization of the police. The political question seems to be, what version of the right-wing will prevail in the coming elections? And what now becomes a permissable right-wing once le Pen becomes the “center”. Horrific, sad, and foreboding times, but hopefully we can still think and speak and act in the midst of it.

Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame. The nearly 50 dead in Beirut from the day before are barely mentioned, and neither are the 111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone, or the scores in Ankara. Most people I know describe themseves as “at an impasse”, not able to think the situation through. One way to think about it may be to come up with a concept of transversal grief, to consider how the metrics of grievability work, why the cafe as target pulls at my heart in ways that other targets cannot. It seems that fear and rage may well turn into a fierce embrace of a police state. I suppose this is why I prefer those who find themselves at an impasse. That means that this will take some time to think through. It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time, and those who are willing to take it with you – something that has a chance of happening in an unauthorized “rassemblement” [gathering].

UPDATE (2): At Open Democracy Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed has a helpful essay, ‘ISIS wants to destroy the “grey zone”: Here’s how we defend it’: access here.

War and therapeutic geographies

Tall Rifat hospital near Aleppo attacked by helicopter gunships June 2012

I previously noted the problems of providing medical care to those fleeing the war in Syria – and to those who’ve been left behind – and an article by Thanassis Cambanis in the Boston Globe (‘Medical care is now a tool of war’) reinforces the importance of the issue:

 The medical students disappeared on a run to the Aleppo suburbs. It was 2011, the first year of the Syrian uprising, and they were taking bandages and medicine to communities that had rebelled against the brutal Assad regime. A few days later, the students’ bodies, bruised and broken, were dumped on their parents’ doorsteps.

Dr. Fouad M. Fouad, a surgeon and prominent figure in Syrian public health, knew some of the students who had been killed. And he knew what their deaths meant. The laws of war—in which medical personnel are allowed to treat everybody equally, combatants and civilians from any side—no longer applied in Syria.

“The message was clear: Even taking medicine to civilians in opposition areas was a crime,” he recalled.

As the war accelerated, Syria’s medical system was dragged further into the conflict. Government officials ordered Fouad and his colleagues to withhold treatment from people who supported the opposition, even if they weren’t combatants. The regime canceled polio vaccinations in opposition areas, allowing a preventable disease to take hold. And it wasn’t just the regime: Opposition fighters found doctors and their families a soft target for kidnapping; doctors always had some cash and tended not to have special protection like other wealthy Syrians.

Doctors began to flee Syria, Fouad among them. He left for Beirut in 2012. By last year, according to a United Nations working group, the number of doctors in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, had plummeted from more than 5,000 to just 36.

Since then, Fouad has joined a small but growing group of doctors trying to persuade global policy makers—starting with the world’s public health community—to pay more urgent attention to how profoundly new types of war are transforming medicine and public health.

It is grotesquely ironic that ‘global policy-makers’ should have to be persuaded of the new linkages between war, medicine and public health, given how often later modern war is described (and, by implication, legitimated) through medical metaphors: see in particular Colleen Bell, ‘War and the allegory of medical intervention: why metaphors matter’, International Political Sociology 6: 3 (2012) 325-28 and ‘Hybrid warfare and its metaphors’, Humanity 3 (2) (2012) 225-47.

AI Health Crisis in SyriaBut there are, as Fouad emphasises, quite other, densely material biopolitics attached to contemporary military and paramilitary violence, including not only the targeting of medical staff, as he says, but also their patients.

“In Syria today, wounded patients and doctors are pursued and risk torture and arrest at the hands of the security services,” said Marie-Pierre Allié, president of [Médecins san Frontières’]. “Medicine is being used as a weapon of persecution.”

In October 2011 Amnesty International described the partisan abuse of the wounded in hospitals in Damascus and Homs, and the denial of medical care in detention facilities, in chilling detail.

At least then (and there) there were hospitals.  Linking only too directly to my previous post on Aleppo, Cambanis concludes:

Today, Fouad’s former home of Aleppo is largely a ghost town, its population displaced to safer parts of Syria or across the border to Turkey and Lebanon. The city’s former residents carry the medical consequences of war to their new homes, Fouad said—not just injuries, but effects as varied as smoking rates, untreated cancer, and scabies. Wars like those in Syria and Iraq don’t follow the old rules, and their effects don’t stop at the border.

I first became aware of these issues at a conference on War and medicine in Paris in December 2012, which prompted my current interest in the casualties of war, combatant and civilian, and the formation of modern medical-military machines.  Several friends from the Paris meeting (Omar Dewachi, Vinh-Kim Nguyen and  Ghassan Abu Sitta) have since joined with other colleagues to produce a preliminary review published this month in The Lancet: ‘Changing therapeutic geographies of the Iraqi and Syrian wars’.  They write:

War is a global health problem. The repercussions of war go beyond death, injury, and morbidity. The effects of war are long term, reshaping the everyday lives and survival of entire populations.

In this report,we assess the long-term and transnational dimensions of two conflicts: the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the ongoing armed conflict in Syria, which erupted in 2011. Our aim is to show that, although these conflicts differ in their geopolitical contexts and timelines, they share similarities in terms of the effects on health and health care. We analyse the implications of two intertwined processes—the militarisation and regionalisation of health care.  In both Syria and Iraq,boundaries between civilian and combatant spaces have been blurred. Consequently,hospitals and clinics are no longer safe havens. The targeting and misappropriation of health-care facilities have become part of the tactics of warfare. Simultaneously, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have caused large-scale internal and external displacement of populations. This displacement has created huge challenges for neighbouring countries that are struggling to absorb the health-care needs of millions of people.

They emphasise ‘the targeting and implication of medicine in warfare’ and note that ‘the militarisation of health care follows the larger trends of the war on terror, where the boundaries between civilian and combatant spaces are broadly disrespected.’  They have in mind ‘not only the problem of violence against health care, but also [the ways in which] health care itself has become an instrument of violence, with health professionals participating (or being forced to participate) in torture, the withholding of care, or preferential treatment of soldiers.’

And they describe a largely unplanned dispersal of medical care across the region that blurs other – national – boundaries, requiring careful analysis of the ‘therapeutic geographies‘ which trace the precarious and shifting journeys through which people obtain medical treatment in and beyond the war zone.  They insist that ‘migrants seeking refuge from violence cannot be framed and presented as mere victims but as people using various strategies to acquire health care and remake their lives.’ The manuscript version of the report included the map below, which illustrates the scale of the problem:

Therapeutic geographies

My own work addresses similar issues through four case studies over a longer time-span, to try to capture the dynamics of these medical-military constellations: the Western Front in 1914-18, the Western Desert in the Second World War, Vietnam, and Afghanistan 2001-2014 (see ‘Medical-military machines’, DOWNLOADS tab).

msf-afghanistan-report-finaToday Médecins sans Frontières published an important report, Between rhetoric and reality:  the ongoing struggle to access healthcare in Afghanistan, that speaks directly to these concerns.  Like the Lancet team, the report explores the ways in which war affects not only the provision of healthcare for those wounded by its violences but also access to healthcare for those in the war zone who suffer from other, often chronic and life-threatening illnesses: ‘The conflict creates dramatic barriers that people must overcome to reach basic or life- saving medical assistance. It also directly causes death, injury or suffering that increase medical needs.’  Releasing their findings, MSF explained:

After more than a decade of international aid and investment, access to basic and emergency medical care in Afghanistan remains severely limited and sorely ill-adapted to meet growing needs created by the ongoing conflict…  While healthcare is often held up as an achievement of international state-building efforts in Afghanistan, the situation is far from being a simple success story. Although progress has been made in healthcare provision since 2002, the report … reveals the serious and often deadly risks that people are forced to take to seek both basic and emergency care.

The research – conducted over six months in 2013 with more than 800 patients in the hospitals where MSF works in Helmand, Kabul, Khost and Kunduz provinces – makes it clear that the upbeat rhetoric about the gains in healthcare risks overlooking the suffering of Afghans who struggle without access to adequate medical assistance.

“One in every five of the patients we interviewed had a family member or close friend who had died within the last year due to a lack of access to medical care,” said Christopher Stokes, MSF general director. “For those who reached our hospitals, 40 per cent of them told us they faced fighting, landmines, checkpoints or harassment on their journey.”

The patients’ testimonies expose a wide gap between what exists on paper in terms of healthcare and what actually functions. The majority said that they had to bypass their closest public health facility during a recent illness, pushing them to travel greater distances – at significant cost and risk – to seek care.

MSF provides a photoessay describing some of these precarious journeys (‘Long and dangerous roads’) here, from which I’ve taken the photograph below, showing an inured man being led by a relative into the Kunduz Trauma Centre.

MSB5652

A mile in these shoes

I’m just back from Beirut, and trying to catch up.  Every day I went for a walk along the Corniche, and on the second morning a young Syrian boy asked if he could clean my shoes.  I was wearing trainers, but told him that I’d pay him anyway and he could clean my shoes next time I came out; he refused to take the money until I had agreed where and when I would present myself for the service.  Heart-warming and hear-breaking, and I can’t get him out of my mind.  So here is a quick up-date on the situation (see also my previous posts here and here).

Syria civil war casualties

First, this week Foreign Policy published this sobering animated map of casualties from the civil war in Syria based on data from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group:

It visualizes the approximately 74,000 people who died from March 2011 to November 2013. Every flare represents the death of one or more people, the most common causes being shooting, shelling, and field execution. The brighter a flare is, the more people died in that specific time and place. The data used are drawn from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), the documentation arm of the Local Coordination Committees in Syria which has been one of the eight sources on which HRDAG has based its count. In a June 2013 report, HRDAG cited VDC as the most thorough accounting of casualties in Syria, though the dataset has been found to contain some inconsistencies…

What the map demonstrates is the escalation of the conflict — with data from March 2011 through the VDC’s Nov. 21, 2013 report — and its quick descent from being a smattering of violence to a multi-front war with militias challenging the military (and other militias) almost everywhere at once. What it can’t show, of course, is the horror and destruction of this war.

My image is just a screen grab, of course, so you need to visit the original to see the overall, devastating effect.

For more detail, I recommend Syria Deeply, a new digital platform that attempts to combine citizen journalism with professional analysis; there’s a profile of the project at start-up over at Fast Company here and a more recent commentary from its founder Lara Setrakian here. I think there are lessons to be learned here about the way publics can be created and brought to engage with conflicts, and that goes for academics as well as journalists.

Second, it’s much harder to find information about those who have been wounded in the conflict – one of my present preoccupations: see here and here – but while I was in Beirut Lebanon’s Daily Star published an interesting report on NGOs working in the borderlands to treat casualties from the war zone.  In the Bekaa Valley the International Committee of the Red Cross has treated over 700 people since 2012, while a 20-bed clinic run by Lebanon’s Ighatheyya has treated 135 people since it opened five months ago in Kamed al-Loz.  The casualties include pro- and anti-Assad fighters (according to the ICRC, ‘When we know the patients are from opposing sides we separate them by placing them on different floors … We make sure they don’t know the other is there’) and civilians alike.  Many of them are suffering from infected wounds because they were initially treated in makeshift facilities in tents or private houses, which is why the perilous journey across the border is so vitally important. Neither the ICRC nor Ighatheyya make cross-border runs.  The Star‘s reporters explain:

Many patients are lawfully retrieved from the border by the Lebanese Red Cross, who then take them to a number of cooperating hospitals across the Bekaa Valley for treatment. According to a well-informed source, the ICRC has contracted four hospitals, in Chtaura, Jib Jenin, Baalbek and Hermel, to care for war wounded Syrians.

After surgery patients are often referred to clinics run by other non-governmental organizations, such as Ighatheyya, who oversee the patients’ convalescence…. Ighatheyya is [also] in the process of building a fully equipped 30-bed hospital in the border town of Arsal, where many refugees and combatants cross into Lebanon.

Another major locus of emergency medical treatment is Tripoli, just 30 km from the border and the primary treatment centre for Syrians seeking emergency medical assistance in northern Lebanon.  Médecins Sans Frontières, which also operates from four locations in the Bekaa Valley, has been supporting local clinics and hospitals here since February 2012 (and it’s been working inside Syria since March 2011).

NGOs are not the only organisations on the field.  Last summer NBC described the operation of a new clinic set up by the Syrian National Opposition to treat opposition fighters.  It too is in the Bekaa Valley, which is for the most part controlled by Hezbollah – which is of course militantly pro-Asad.  Four days after the clinic opened a local militia aligned with Hezbollah broke into the compound and forced a rapid evacuation, and early last summer armed men attacked an ambulance transporting a patient to surgery and kidnapped him: ‘Since then, the Lebanese Red Cross has refused to transport the clinic’s patients in ambulances through certain Hezbollah-dominated areas without an army escort. And private cars carrying patients through those areas have been shot at.’

For more on the transnational ‘therapeutic geographies’ involved in the wars in Iraq and Syria, see Omar Dewachi, Mac Skelton, Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Fouad Fouad, Ghassan Abu Sitta, Zeina Maasri and Rita Giacaman, ‘The Changing Therapeutic Geographies of the Iraqi and Syrian Wars’, forthcoming in The Lancet.  And for a discussion of the regional geopolitics of all this, including a corrective to the claim that the war in Syria is simply ‘spilling over’ into Lebanon, see Bélen Fernández over at warscapes here.

Syria-Lebanon-Report-2013 (dragged)As MSF emphasises, refugees from the conflict in Syria need more than emergency treatment for war wounds: ‘The epidemiological profile of populations does not change when they cross borders; those who needed medications for chronic conditions in Syria still need them in Lebanon.’  And, clearly, they have other pressing needs too:

‘[T]the gaps in service that existed [in June 2012] have not been sufficiently addressed but have in fact widened as more people have streamed across the border. Living conditions among the majority of refugees and Lebanese returnees remain extremely precarious, particularly with winter arriving. More than 50% of those interviewed, whether they were officially registered or not, are housed in substandard structures — inadequate collective shelters, farms, garages, unfinished buildings and old schools — that provide paltry, if any, protection against the elements. The rest are renting houses, but many of those people, now separated from their lives and livelihoods, are struggling to pay the rent. The medical picture has deteriorated as well. More than half of all interviewees (52%) cannot afford treatment for chronic disease care, and nearly one-third of them have had to suspend treatment already underway because it was too expensive to continue. For those who are and are not registered alike, the costs attached to essential primary health care, ante-natal care and institutional deliveries are prohibitive. Among non-registered returnees and internally displaced Lebanese, 63% received no assistance whatsoever from any NGO.’

Here’s a recent map of Syrian refugee flows:

Syrian refugee flows to December 2013

For more detail, UNHCR’s tabulations of Syrian refugees in Lebanon can be found here, and there’s a remarkable interactive map here (again, the image below is just a screen grab).

Syrian refugees in Lebanon summer 2013

The number of registered refugees in Lebanon – and, as that MSF report indicates, registration is itself a deeply problematic process and the numbers understate the gravity of the situation – is now around one million; Lebanon’s population is four million, so one person in five is a refugee.  But wary of its experience with the Palestinian refugee camps – on which Adam Ramadan‘s work is indispensable: his book is due out later this year, but in the meantime see ‘In the ruins of Nahr al-Barid: Understanding the meaning of the camp‘, Journal of Palestine Studies 40 (1) (2010) and  ‘Spatialising the refugee camp‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38 (1) (2013) 65-77 – Lebanon has refused to sanction camps for Syrian refugees: hence those ‘tented settlements’ on the map above (and see the image below).

24iht-m24-lebanon-refugees-articleLarge-v3

This strategy, or lack of it, is in marked contrast to Jordan, where Al- Za’atari, which opened in July 2012, will soon become the largest refugee camp in the world (below): you can find a sequence of satellite images showing its explosive growth here.

al-zataari-may-2013

But Lebanon is adamant that it will not sanction any intimations of permanence.  Norimitsu Onishi reported recently in the New York Times that

Those fears have forced the refugees to try to squeeze into pre-existing buildings and blend into the landscape. Those with means rent apartments. But hundreds of thousands are living in garages and occupying the nooks and crannies of buildings under construction. Abandoned buildings, including universities and shopping malls, have been taken over in their entirety by refugees.

Here, as usual, there are pickings to be had.  Last year Tracy McVeigh reported in the Guardian that

‘While there are widespread reports of extraordinary acts of generosity and kindness by Lebanese towards Syrian refugees, many people here are making money from Syria’s war. Landlords are getting rents for barely habitable properties, stables and outhouses. There are hefty profits to be made in the gun-running business, and refugees are easily exploited as cheap labour. The government is getting military resources from America and Europe, which are keen to see it able to protect its borders. But many others are losing out – those who are trying to house and feed large families along with their own.’

And that includes young boys looking for shoes to clean on the waterfront in Beirut.  If you want to donate more than the cost of a shoe-clean, you can reach Oxfam here, the International Rescue Committee here and UNHCR here.

Safe bombs and refusing pilots

lebanon_map_jul12-Aug06My first attempt to think through the histories and geographies of bombing from the air was, appropriately enough, a plenary address to the Arab World Geographer conference in Beirut in 2006 – a meeting which had had to be postponed until December as a result of Israel’s summer-long attack on Lebanon.  Registrations fell away, especially from the United States and the U.K., but we had a wonderfully lively meeting.

I eventually turned my presentation – which, under the title “The death of the civilian”, developed the twin genealogies of the target and the civilian to address Israel’s bombing of southern Lebanon and Beirut – into an essay for the journal: “In another time zone, the bombs fall unsafely: Targets, civilians and late modern war” (published in 2007: see DOWNLOADS tab).

I began like this:

My title comes from a poem by Blake Morrison, ‘Stop’, which was reprinted in an anthology to aid children’s charities in Lebanon compiled by Anna Wilson after the Israeli assault on that country during the summer of 2006.  The poem speaks directly to the ideology of late modern war – to what Christopher Coker praises as the ‘re-enchantment’ of war through its rhetorical erasure of death– and to its dissonance from ‘another’ time and space where bombs continue to ‘fall unsafely’.  It begins like this:

 ‘As of today, the peace process will be intensified

through war.  These are safe bombs, and any fatalities

will be minors.  The targets are strictly military

or civilian.  Anomalies may occur, but none

out of the ordinary.  This release has been prepared by

official Stop.’

 Morrison perfectly captures the hypocrisy of war – the malevolent twisting of words to mean the opposite of what they say, the cosmetic face of public war put on to conceal the harrowing face of private death – and also the intimacy of the furtive, fugitive relationship between ‘targets’ and ‘civilians’ in late modern war. In what follows, I will try to lay that relationship bare by reconstructing its historical geography.  In doing so, I will also show how our meeting in Beirut to discuss ‘the European-Arab encounter’, less than six months after Israel’s war on Lebanon, must confront the connections between the political and military strategies mobilized during the summer of 2006 and a series of colonial encounters between Europe and the Arab world in the years surrounding the First World War. 

That remains one of the primary motivations for my Killing Space project.

But 2006 was not the first time that Israel had sent its fighter-bombers into the skies over Lebanon.  What I did not know when I prepared my presentation was that during the bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982 a number of Israeli Air Force pilots had refused to bomb ‘non-military targets’.  Now there is still fierce debate over the distinction between ‘military’ and ‘non-military’ targets, and over the civilian casualties that may nevertheless result from bombing ostensibly ‘military’ targets, both in principle and in practice, and it’s an argument which is conducted on legal and ethical terrains (though we hear much more of the former than the latter).  But here I’m particularly interested in the act of refusal itself: less in the application of abstract, formal principles – important though these are – and more in the personal, rational and affective moment of abjuration.

Hagai TamirIn 2002 Ha’aretz published interviews by Avihai Becker with three IAF officers who had formally refused; the testimonies of two of them were already known, but it’s the third that I want to describe here. Hagai Tamir, a major in the IAF, grew up as one of what he calls ‘the lyric pilots’, consummating a love of flight itself:

“I wanted to feel like a bird. The whole idea of the plane as a war machine was much less appealing to me. The concept of a plane as a platform for weapons was foreign to me so I enjoyed the aerobatics much more than I did dropping ordnance. Even during my compulsory service as a young pilot, I didn’t derive any pleasure from it.”

After his compulsory military service and his move to the reserves, Tamir trained as an architect and this enhanced his sense of unease, even disengagement.

“Who knows better than me, an architect, how hard it is to build a city? So at least, don’t rejoice when you destroy houses. It takes a lot longer to build a city than it does to strike a target.”

In June 1982, one week into the invasion of Lebanon, Tamir was flying over the port city of Saida (Sidon), near the Ain El Helweh refugee camp:

“We flew in tandem above the place. The liaison officer who was with the ground forces informed me of the target, a large building on top of a hill. I looked at it and to the best of my judgment, the structure could have only been one of two things – a hospital or a school. I questioned the officer and asked why I was being given that target. His reply was that they were shooting from there. There were a thousand reasons why I didn’t think I should bomb the building. I asked him if he knew what the building was. He said he didn’t. I insisted that he find out. He got back to me with some vague answers.”

Tamir was not satisfied by the response, reported a ‘malfunction’, cut off radio contact and did not release his bombs (on some accounts, he dropped them into the sea).

The episode is significant for several reasons.  The first is that this was an intensely personal decision: Tamir did not publicise it (though the IAF did investigate the incident), and it made no material difference to the outcome since the accompanying aircraft went ahead and levelled the building (which was indeed a secondary school for boys).  Even so, Tamir was not alone; others refused similar orders, and although it’s difficult to gauge how far the ripples caused by these refusals travelled into 2006 and beyond – see Asher Kaufman‘s thoughtful discussion in Shadows of war: a social history of silence in the twentieth century here – twenty years later Tamir did join 24 other active, reserve and retired Air Force officers in signing a public letter refusing to carry out air strikes in occupied Palestine (and who were roundly abused for doing so: see here and more on the Courage to Refuse movement here).

The second is that, even though Tamir confided what happened over Saida only to his family and close friends, the story spread through the town, embellished in the telling and re-telling: so how did the people know, and what significance did they see in it?

The third is that the story has become the subject of a remarkable multimedia installation by Beiruti artist Akram Zaatari, Letter to a refusing pilot, which is the only artwork representing Lebanon at the 55th Venice Biennale this year.  Zaatari describes himself as

‘an architect, a documentary filmmaker, and an ethnographer working in the art world, so I use the tools and approaches that I have learned from those three disciplines. I have no particular method to apply, otherwise it would make my work too simple. I enjoy reflecting on complex social and political issues particularly related to geographies.’

You can find images and a commentary on the Biennale installation here and here, but Zaatari explains his project like this:

“The importance of the story is that it gives the pilot a human face. It gives what he is about to bomb, which is considered terrorist ground, it also gives that a human face. I think it’s important to remember in times of war that everyone is a human being. Taking it to this level humanizes it completely, and we’re not used to this at all.”

Zaatari was born in Saida – in fact his father founded the school that was the target of the IAF attack – and the film that is the heart of the art-work is, like Tamir’s decision, an intensely personal one whose resonances reach far and wide.  Zaatari met with Tamir, and the film affirms the Israeli pilot’s original impulse to fly: hands draw paper aeroplanes and, at the end of the film, two boys climb up to the roof of the school and launch them into the air.  The film is cut with family photographs and Zaatari’s own diary entries from the invasion too: you can find copies of the film on You Tube starting here.

ZAATARI Letter to a refusing pilot

On the opposite wall, separated and joined by a single red cinema seat, another (shorter) film silently projects the hillside overlooking Said being systematically bombed.  The sequence derives from a series of photographs Zaatari took in 1982.

ZAATARI Saida 6 June 1982

From that seat, the viewer is invited to watch only that film, facing away from the more personal, vividly human story being told by the first film.  Negar Azimi provides a fuller discussion of the installation here, and she concludes that ‘by placing each one of us, alone, within the generous frame of the work, it seems to remind us that, not unlike the pilot, we are sometimes caught up in vexed circumstances beyond our control.’ Certainly the title of the work directly addresses the pilot and so, by extension, perhaps the pilot-observer that late modern war has invited those of us who watch wars from a safe distance to become.

5367

Perhaps.  But this is a multi-layered work, and there are other readings.  Near the beginning of the personal memory-film, and before the title appears on the screen, gloved hands turn the pages of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince, which Negar describes as a ‘much-adored 1943 tale of youthful existentialism’.  The point here, I take it, is to reinforce or reinscribe the acknowledged affinities between Zaatari’s work and Albert Camus‘s Letters to a German friend (“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”)

But, as she also, notes Saint-Exupéry was ‘a famous war-time aviator’, and in that role he had a decidedly different view of things that speaks directly to (or rather from) the object record-film of the bombing:

Saint-Exupéry.001

Much of Zaatari’s work, as he confirms in this exceptionally rich conversation with Chad Elias for the Tate in 2011, asks us to ‘rethink what it means to witness, survive, or even document a war’. With that in mind, in gazing at the image stream of bombs, with our backs to the lifeworld that was also for many a deathworld, is it not possible that we are also being invited from that single red chair to adopt the position of Walter Benjamin‘s Angel of History?

War tourism

531852_10152763437810085_650007389_n

I spent part of the week-end at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, which is currently hosting Safar/Voyage: contemporary works by Arab, Iranian and Turkish artists (until 15 September).  I’d written an essay for the accompanying catalogue – “Middle of What?  East of Where?”, which you can find under the DOWNLOADS tab – and I was at MOA on Saturday afternoon for a lively and appropriately wide-ranging public conversation (billed as a”Global Dialogue”) on “Nomadic aesthetics and the importance of place” with Jian Ghomeshi, artist Jayce Salloum and curator Jill Baird.

destinationx1While I was at MOA I spent some time with the artworks on display and in the company of a brilliant app that provides all sorts of information and context; for such a compact exhibition they are thrillingly diverse, speaking to one another in a multiplicity of ways, and disrupting common stereotypes of the region as somehow homogeneous.  Two exhibits are likely to be of particular interest to readers of this blog.  The first, artfully parked outside the second, is Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki‘s Destination X (originally 2010, but recreated for MOA in 2013):

Destination X is an old car piled high with the hastily gathered belongings of a refugee family: luggage, everyday objects, and colourful cloth bundles tied to the roof. During the Lebanese civil war these floral fabrics, regional and postcolonial at the same time, replaced fabrics embroidered with local peasant motifs, mirroring the lost agricultural “paradise.” The overloaded car suggests movement and absence, urgency and wandering. The letter X symbolizes forced flight into exile to places unknown. Distance is swallowed in an aimless journey, when time and duration become vague. The journey and its hardships, the risk of leaving home, the difficulty of resettling.

You can find images of earlier versions here, where the artist explains that, while the work had its origins in the Lebanese civil war, it speaks to many other situations and peoples: “Other nationalities can sympathise…Many of the elder generations, it echoes with them…either from Bosnia or from World War II.”

ATinstallThe second is Adel Abidin‘s mixed-media installation, Abidin’s Travels (2006), set up as a travel agent’s office, complete with posters, brochures and video, and its nemesis (a website: how many travel agents are there these days?)

I came up with the idea when I visited Iraq in 2004 and was greeted at a checkpoint by an American soldier, who said, “Welcome to Baghdad!” I realized I was being welcomed by an occupier of my own city. This experience made me think about cities in war and their messy transformations.

After the occupation and gentrification of a city in a conflict zone, you would need a guide, even if you grew up there. This is what I saw happening in Baghdad. So I created a travel agency, using “holiday travel” as a point of departure and Iraq as a destination, to explore the idea of tourism and consumerism in general, and how these generic models break down when applied to a country ripped apart by war. I created this work to draw attention to the new Iraq, “the democratic Iraq,” a mythical place where, in reality, possibility and opportunity barely exist.

You can find a short, interesting commentary by Laura Marks here.

longstillset

Baghdad has obviously changed in the last six or seven years, but in case you think tourism has been ‘normalised’ check out Wikitravel‘s current guide, which reads as though it was written by the artist (“The easiest way to stay safe in Baghdad is not to go there in the first place”).  Still more revealing, look at the hotel reviews (yes) on Trip Advisor here.  Like all reviews on the site, they tell you as much about the reviewer as they do the place – I was particularly taken by this review of one hotel, which was never far from the headlines during the invasion and occupation, and which displays what I hope is a rare sensitivity to the lot of ordinary people in Baghdad:

The problems start with the lack of amenities. The pool wasn’t fit to swim in, the hotel doesn’t have a bar, there isn’t a gym, nothing. The service was appalling. The food was always cold & generally dreadful, the bathrooms are fitted out with full bottles of head and shoulders, Colgate, dove soap, bic razors and gilette shaving foam. There is no room service, no laundry service and all that for $300 a night….One plus. It’s safe, which is saying something for Baghdad…

Not much global dialogue there then.

‘Imagination bodies forth…’

Following from my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies recently, and for two reasons.

DUDZIAK War-timeThe first is the workshop on War & Medicine I attended in Paris just before Christmas.  It became very clear early on how difficult it is to determine when military violence comes to an end; Mary Dudziak has recently written about this in her War time: an idea, its history, its consequences (Oxford, 2012), largely from a legal point of view (and not without criticism), but it’s worth emphasising that the effects of violence continue long after any formal end to combat.  This ought to be obvious, but it’s astonishing how often it’s ignored or glossed over.

Think, for example, of the continuing toll of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, recovered in detail by Catherine Lutz (who was part of the workshop) and her colleagues at the Costs of War project, which shows how ‘the human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades’.

NIXON Slow violenceOr think of  the toxic environments produced by ecological warfare, by the use of depleted uranium in munitions, and by the continued deployment of land mines and cluster bombs – what Rob Nixon brilliantly calls the ‘slow violence’ produced by ‘ecologies of the aftermath’ (more on this in a later post):

 ‘In our age of depleted-uranium warfare, we have an ethical obligation to challenge the military body counts that consistently underestimate (in advance and in retrospect) the true toll of waging high-tech wars.  Who is counting the staggered deaths that civilians and soldiers suffer from depleted uranium ingested or blown across the desert?  Who is counting the belated fatalities from unexploded cluster bombs that lie in wait for months of years, metastasizing into landmines?  Who is counting deaths from chemical residues left behind by so-called pinpoint bombing, residues that turn into foreign insurgents, infiltrating native rivers and poisoning the food chains?  Who is counting the victims of genetic deterioration – the stillborn, malformed infants conceived by parents whose DNA has been scrambled by war’s toxins?’

(If you think we are winning the war on land-mines, especially in you are in Canada, read this).

These two contributions – and the conversations we had in Paris – rapidly displaced the lazy assumption of a politics of care in which the left mourns civilian casualties and the right military casualties. That there is a politics of care is clear enough, but there’s also a political geography: that’s written in to the biopolitical projects that are contained within so many late modern wars, and in Paris Omar Dewachi and Ghassan Abu-Sitta described how ‘care’ has become a means of controlling populations in wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria – a rather different sense of ‘surgical warfare’ from the one we’re used to – with states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar also funding the transfer of thousands of injured people from the war zones for treatment in hospitals in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

And two brilliant medical anthropologists, Ken Macleish and Zoe Wool, brought with them vivid, carefully wrought ethnographies of injured soldiers’ bodies.  The American soldier may appear a figure of unprecedented invulnerabilty and astonishing violence – what Ken calls a figure of ‘technological magic’ produced by a ‘phantasmagoric technological empowerment of the body’ – but, as he and Zoe reminded us, soldiers are not only ‘the agents and instruments of sovereign violence’ but also its objects.  Their studies took me to places I’ve never been and rarely thought about, but I’ve been thinking about two other dimensions of their work that combined to produce my second reason for thinking about bodies.

One is the historicity that is embedded in this process.  Ken paraphrased Walter Benjamin‘s observation in the wake of the First World War – ‘the technological progress evident in modern warfare does not ensure the protection of the human body so much as it subjects it to previously unimaginable forms of harm and exposure’ – and linked it to John Keegan‘s claim in The face of battle that the military history of the twentieth-century was distinguished by the rise of ‘”thing-killing’ as opposed to man-killing weapons’ (the example he had in mind was heavy artillery).  The other is the corporeality of the combat zone.  Ken again:  ‘You need not only knowledge of what the weapons and armor can do for you and to you but a kind of bodily habitus as well – an ability to take in the sensory indications of danger and act on them without having to think too hard about it first.’  In an essay ‘On movement’ forthcoming in Ethnos, Zoe develops this insight through an artful distinction between carnality and corporeality (which may require me to revise my vocabulary):

‘The analytics of movement is a turning toward emergent carnality, flesh, and the way it is seen and felt; proprioception and those other senses of sight, sound, touch, and taste through which a body and a space enact a meaningful, sensible articulation; visceral experiences forged and diagnosed through the trauma of war which also exceed its limits.’ 

an-ice-cream-warAnd so to my second reason for thinking about bodies. Later this month I’m giving a lecture in the University of Kentucky’s annual Social Theory series.  The theme this year is Mapping, and my title is ‘Gabriel’s Map‘.  This is a riff on a phase from William Boyd‘s novel, An Ice-Cream War, that has haunted me ever since I first read it:

‘Gabriel thought maps should be banned.  They gave the world an order and reasonableness it didn’t possess.’

The occasion for the remark is a spectacularly unsuccessful British attempt to defeat a much smaller German force in November 1914 at Tanga in German East Africa; the young subaltern, Gabriel, rapidly discovers that there is a world of difference between what Clausewitz once called ‘paper war’ – a plan of attack plotted on the neat, stable lines of a map – and ‘real war’.   What I plan (sic) to do is arc back from this exceptionally brutal campaign – which lasted two weeks longer than the war in Europe – to the western front.  The two were strikingly different: the war in Africa was a war of movement and manoeuvre fought with the most meagre of military intelligence, whereas the central years of the war in Europe were distinguished by stasis and attrition and involved an extraordinary effort to maintain near real-time mapping of the disposition of forces.

The point here is to explore a dialectic between cartography and what I think I’m going to call corpography.

FINNEGAN Shooting The FrontThe first of these has involved working out the intimate relationship between mapping and aerial reconnaissance (what the Royal Flying Corps called ‘shooting the front’).  There is a marvellously rich story to be told here which, among other things, shows that the stasis of trench warfare was Janus-faced: it was produced by a myriad of micro-movements – advances and withdrawals, raids and repulses – whose effectiveness depended not on the fixity of the map at all but on its more or less constant updating (which in turn means that this capacity isn’t the unique preserve of twenty-first century ‘digital navigation’).  So here I’ll show how a casaced of millions of trench maps and aerial photographs was produced, distributed and then incorporated into the field of action through copies, re-drawings, sketches and annotations by front-line soldiers.  I have wonderful, telling examples, like this one (look carefully at the annotations):

Trench map annotated

Santanu DAS: Touch an dintimacy in First World War literatureBut I also want to show (as the map above implies: all those “full of dead” annotations) how, for these men, the battlefield was also literally a field: a vile, violent medium to be known not only (or even primarily) through sight but through touch, smell and sound: what Santanu Das memorably calls a ‘slimescape’ which was also a soundscape.  This was a close-in terrain that was known through the physicality of the body as a sensuous, haptic geography:

‘Amidst the dark, muddy, subterranean world of the trenches, the soldiers navigated space … not through the safe distance of the gaze but rather through the clumsy immediacy of their bodies: “crawl” is a recurring verb in trench narratives, showing the shift from the visual to the tactile.’

This was a ‘mapping’ of sorts – as Becca Weir suggests in  ‘“Degrees in nothingness”: battlefield topography in the First World War’, Critical Quarterly 49 (4) (2007) 40-55 – and there is a dialectic between cartography and corpography.

I’ve been working my way through a series of diaries, memoirs and letters to flesh out its performance in detail, but the most vivid illustration of the entanglements of cartography and corpography that I’ve found – and that I suspect I shall ever find – is this extract from a ‘body density map’ for part of the Somme.  This shows the standard trench map above a contemporary satellite photograph; each carefully ruled square is overprinted with the number of dead soldiers found buried in the first sweep after the war (between March and April 1919)…

Body Density Map, High Wood, Somme image by shipscompass on flickr

I won’t say more at present because I need to keep my powder dry for Kentucky, but I hope it will be clear by the end that, even though I’ll be  talking about the First World War, I will also have been talking about the wars conducted in the shadows of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.