To Move On, the Traumatised Middle East Needs to Heal First

Sunday 26 July 202005:34 pm

Ever since the lockdown, I have been meditating every night before I go to sleep. I downloaded the Calm app that was widely publicized on television at the very beginning of the lockdown It really works and I highly recommend it.

The very soothing voice of Tamara Levitt lulls me to a very rare and elusive stillness. I chose the 10-minute Daily Calm option.

She says that “In my role with Calm, my goal is to make wisdom teachings accessible and relatable”. I am grateful to her and the creator of the app for doing that.

Last night her commentary was on the subject of kintsugi, which literally means golden joinery. It is a centuries-old Japanese method of repairing broken pottery using lacquer mixed with gold. When something is broken there’s always a way to fix it. At first, we may experience anger and consider throwing away the object or the relationship. There is however always a solution. Mending becomes an artform. It takes effort and resilience to make something whole again. By mending an object, you are giving it a new life. More importantly, in kintsugi you are recognizing that the rupture and repair are part of that object’s history. This applies to relationships as well. When an object is mended it changes, often for the better. When a relationship is broken some “gold” must be found to repair it and hopefully improve it.

Today in my morning reading of the newspapers, there was a headline that France was willing to come to the aid of Lebanon. In fact, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, had arrived in Lebanon to press the government to implement long overdue reforms and create consensus (especially over Hezbollah’s role as the country’s de facto puppet master). The country had of late become increasingly isolated from the international community whilst the French have long had a colonial foothold in the Middle East, particularly in the Levant. Le Drian has been quoted as saying: “help us help you”. A condition for this help is a complete disassociation from Hezbollah. There is no potential golden joinery here, metaphorically speaking.

Some recent suggestions, among them the legalization of marijuana, have been touted as a perfect solution for the restoration Lebanon’s economy. Forgive me if I am skeptical. Lebanon is the world’s third largest producer of cannabis in resin form. After Morocco and Afghanistan, the tiny Middle Eastern country produces 6% of the global total. Real medical benefits have been proven and the legal recreational market is expanding globally so maybe my skepticism is unfounded. But the revival of the economy will need much more to get it back on track than a tax on pot. The whole program seems to be mired in red tape and confusion to say the least. More importantly, there aren’t very many barriers to entry in that business and we’re all too familiar with what happens when one relies on a single cash crop, especially when the biggest markets are far away and have huge potential for competition.

When something is broken there’s always a way to fix it, we may experience anger and consider throwing it away. There is always a solution. Mending becomes an artform. By mending an object, you are giving it a new life. Can we mend Lebanon, Syria and Iraq?

What started out as a call to revolution by all classes across the traditional sectarian divisions has been slowly turning into a desperate cry for help post Covid. The country cannot continue in this manner. The elites have continued the tradition of enriching themselves at the expense of the poor. Fairness has never been a meaningful word in the Middle East, and it seems to be rendered less so every day. This decline of my country of birth, has been slow and longstanding, but it seems to be gaining speed. It reminds me of how Hemingway described going bankrupt in The Sun Also Rises: “Gradually, then suddenly.”

A year ago this week, I spent ten days visiting my family up in the mountains just outside Beirut. When I left at the end of my stay, I called my mother from the airport and told her that I didn’t think I would ever visit Lebanon again. When I arrived at the airport earlier, I had had to use a wasta and get placed in a wheelchair in order to jump the long queue that snaked out to the street because of renovations being undertaken at the height of the summer season. I’ve never experienced as much shame as I did over that ruse, especially when an elderly man who was about to miss his flight asked the security officer if he could jump the queue because his flight was just about to takeoff and they were calling his name on the public address system. It should have been him and not me in that wheelchair.

What has happened to Lebanon? To Syria? To Iraq? There was a time when all these countries thrived in some way. They never enjoyed a particularly wonderful form of democratic government, but they toddled along. Lebanon especially had its own venerable status as the so-called “Paris of the Middle East”, a term I’ve never found endearing as I’ve always thought that Lebanon had its own unique identity, and had no need for pseudo-romantic comparisons to any European city.

It now seems to have fallen to its knees in just a few short years. I often meditate on the fate of these three countries, to which I have family ties and with which I have an inherited empathy. They all deserve better. They deserve that precious gold admixture to heal the fractures and make them whole again. Maybe they’ll never be what they once were, but maybe they’ll be something better. More advanced, most forgiving, more tolerant, and more confident in their potential. They say Arabs have a gift for nostalgia, but maybe its time we stopped living in the past and thought about what the future can be.

Kintsugi requires great skill, but it also requires an ability to understand that the repairs are not meant to mask the damage, but to accept it, to understand it, and to see it as part of what makes it what it is. And so it is with societies.

A year ago, I visited my family in the mountains outside Beirut. When I left at the end of my stay, I called my mother from the airport and told her that I didn’t think I would ever visit Lebanon again. Sara discusses healing Levantines' injuries.

In a recent Washington Post webinar, the journalist and writer David Ignatius asked Christine Lagarde – president of the European Central Bank – what good political leadership looked like and what had been most helpful to Europe in easing out of the lockdown. She replied that she noticed that women tended to do better in dealing with Covid. She held up Chancellor Angela Merkel (who holds a doctorate in quantum chemistry and had previously worked as a research scientist) as an example for her handling of the pandemic given her and for her transparency in sharing data and her clarity in explaining in laymen’s terms what that meant for the German people. He pressed her on why countries led by women had fared better than others, and Lagarde named the (female) leaders of Taiwan, Belgium and New Zealand, saying that they all “communicated well, and carried the water of bad news as well as the water of clear explanations and strong recommendations”. She continued by adding that good leadership is “about inspiring, being responsible and about caring”.

Women are more authentic, and I am being biased. We empathize more. It’s just a fact. So, accept it.

Let me however leave you with a quote by a man, this from Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.

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