Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Two anecdotes:

First: I was in professor Lamy’s office the other day discussing research that I would like to do over summer while in Egypt & Iran, and at some point, after some (half-) kidding remark I made regarding Iran’s political situation, he remarked, “ah, so you’re a Persian nationalist, aren’t you?”

Second: A friend of mine called me because she was writing a paper for a discussion she was having in an international relations course that centered on contemporary Western relations with Iran, and she wanted me to explain, briefly before her class started in 20 minutes, the history of modern Iran (and particularly the nuclear program’s place in it). I began talking, explaining why Iranians had reason to xenophobic and why they had justly displaced the Shah and then attacked the embassy when Carter allowed him into Washington D.C. for medical treatment, and began getting worked up as I talked (as always). At some point, while speaking at length about Iran’s right to nuclear energy, I reached something more meaningful- “I don’t want to defend Ahmedinejad, and I have no reason to. You see everything I say right now, it sounds like I love this man for standing up for Iran. But he has done nothing for Iran except exacerbate our economic problems, and we have no reason to stand behind him! But this is the sad part! Just as Saddam learned in 1980- when confronted with outside enemies, the entire nation will stand up against them, even if we have bigger things to worry about. I was not born an Iranian nationalist, and I have no reason to be one! What has the Iranian state ever done for me? The United States, more than any other party, has made me an Iranian nationalist!”

This was, sadly, the truth of the matter. I read As’ad Abu Khalil’s Angry Arab blog on a daily basis, and am always reminded of the follies of nationalism (except for the Palestinians, as he always qualifies). I myself think nationalism is a base appeal to emotion that stirs people up illogically, but at the same time it is hard for me not to feel nationalistic when I see the world around me, and how Iran is treated by it. It bothers me to feel nationalistic, but nonetheless, when American leaders run around talking about bombing the land of my family, I can’t help but feel this way. I think it is the same for many other people in other countries, and sadly I recognize this as a major stumbling block towards working together- if people can only recognize their own self/national interests, no one can get anywhere. But rejecting nationalism for internationalism or cosmopolitanism (whatever those mean) seems too much like turning your back on your people to be an option.

I found once a blog called Ibn Bint Jbeil ( and at some point there is a post where the writer explains that while he was actually born in Beirut, his father’s attachment to his natal village Bint Jbeil was so strong that he could not bear to have his children registered as being born in Beirut, and thus registered them officially as having been born in Bint Jbeil. The father had gone to work in Beirut, but his heart was still in his homeland, and he sent money and his kids back every so often to make sure the connection remained. This is a type of attachment that I think is beautiful, and should define contemporary nationalism.

Another article I read a bit ago in foreign policy also explored the positive side of nationalism (“Is Nationalism Good For You?” March/April 2008, discussing how people who are more nationalistic tend to be less corrupt and contribute more to their society at large (which makes sense). If this is the type of nationalism Iran gets, I’m all for it. In this sense, Lebanon is a really interesting case study, because nationalism by those abroad sustains the economy, but the strong allegiances (not necessarily nationalism, but sectarianism disguised as such) of those domestically are really tearing things apart. I guess you can have it both ways, but only in the Middle East of course.

A tangent, but Lebanon is completely fascinating for me. It is a state whose identity was born anchored in a minority religion (Maronite Christianity as established by the French) that meant little for the majority of the country, and the wars that it has suffered through since this peaceful birth have all been connected to the failure of this state identity to link in any peaceful way to the national identity. The state of Lebanon was formed for the Maronites, but since then almost every group has tried to define national identity in some way (evidenced by the Lebanese flags you see at every demonstration, regardless of 14 or 8 March affiliation) that contradicts the other group’s interpretation of that identity. Like we discussed in the second class- two people who share one identity might see various elements of that identity as salient, like a Sunni Arab who views Islam as defining of his being Arab while a Coptic Arab might see his Copt faith as really defining of his Arab identity. Thus a Lebanese Christian might see this French connection as truly defining of what it means to be “Lebanese”, while a Lebanese Sunni might instead see the Greater Syria connection as really defining of a Lebanese (/Shami) identity.

Freshman year I wrote a paper for my PPD minor (International Urban Development) on Beirut’s urban development, and the war years and the spatial divisions they created in the city were a big part of my paper. I remember the first line of a source I read went something like: “At heart, the Lebanese conflict has never been about this reform or that reform, but instead it has been a struggle over who the Lebanese are, over what is Lebanese identity.” We see here an ugly manifestation of nationalism- attempts to redefine the nation as linked to various aspects of the individual- but at the same time, the affection that Lebanese feel for their homeland is so strong that if these conflicts were ever sorted out, the Lebanese would be unstoppable. But to this you can only say Inshallah…

The other day I was sitting with a friend who had recently been in Iran for a few months, eating khoresht-e fesenjoon (a sweet pomegranate curry), and she showed me a story she had written. The whole piece was very stream of consciousness and hard to follow, but contained unmistakable references to Persian culture without stating so (most memorably, a story about a girl cutting open an orange only to find a girl inside demanding bread and water). At one point a stranger asks the narrator,

“Where are you from?”

“Right now, no where.”

“And later?”

“I don’t know, it depends on uncultured folk.”

No comments: