I am not known for my domestic skills. Yesterday I loaded the dishwasher, put in the detergent and rinsing agent, pressed the button et voilà. A few hours later, I asked my husband to empty the dishwasher. He looked at me with great amusement and noted that he had just started the appliance because I had forgotten to turn the power on. Oh well…
I’ve been spending most of my days on webinars. Recently my dear friend Safwan Masri has been hosting online seminars. He is the Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University. The first one I joined featured the distinguished professor Rashid Khalidi to discussing his most recent book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. The discussion was extremely serious, covering the precarious subject of the Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank which is looming. Khalidi was erudite and shared that he wrote this book at the behest of his son who told him to write a less academic and more accessible work on a very serious subject. Khalidi is unapologetic in his views, highlighting historical facts often overlooked by “the others” in the unequal and often deceptive Western dialogues on the Palestinian question.
Khalidi was erudite saying he wrote this book at the behest of his son. Khalidi is unapologetic in his views, highlighting historical facts often overlooked by “the others” in the unequal and often deceptive Western dialogue on the Palestinian question
Another featured guest was the American born British/Libyan writer Hisham Matar. His journey is not unfamiliar to many Arabs. His Libyan father, a pre-revolutionary army colonel turned political dissident – was disappeared by Qaddafi‘s dictatorship in Cairo, allegedly with the connivance of the Egyptian security forces. Matar wrote two novels – In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance – influenced by his experiences shortly after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, he published the Pultizer Prize-winning The Return, a memoir of his journey back to Libya and his failed search for his father. Arab political regimes were notorious at kidnapping and torturing their citizens if they did not toe the political line in order to set an example, a legacy perhaps of their close ties with certain Eastern bloc countries. Of his father, Matar writes: “He was imprisoned and gradually, like salt dissolving in water, was made to vanish”.
Immediately after finishing the webinar, I downloaded A Month in Siena, an account of a hiatus Matar took in the Tuscan city. He had fallen in love with the Sienese school of art 25 years earlier when he would visit the National Gallery in London. He travels there ostensibly to see the works that had held his interest and provided him with a much-needed intellectual distraction during the years of his father’s disappearance, but in actuality it was to mourn and come to terms with his gaping loss. Siena had enjoyed a golden age in architecture in the 14th century and many of its most important buildings like the Palazzo Publico and the Torre del Mangia still survive. The arts flourished with masterpieces like Duccio’s Maesta and Vanni’s Santa Stefano all Lizza. The city had been greatly affected during that period by the catastrophic bubonic plague which reached therein the 1340s. In hindsight it seems a curious coincidence that Matar chose Siena to come to terms with his father’s death especially when we are now all fighting a plague. He writes “I knew that I had to come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here”.
Aren’t we all in such a situation? Where do we all go from here?
The latest news from Lebanon is depressing. The American University Hospital, a vital lifeline for many in Beirut, fired 25% of its staff in the wake of its worst economic crisis. Remaining staff are being asked to accept a salary reduction of 10-15%. This comes on top of a political and banking corruption scandal that would make Charles Ponzi himself blush. With no clear resolution in sight and an inflation rate of 56 %, Lebanon is drowning. Blackouts are rolling and there is a shortage of food. Help from the traditional donor countries is elusive. No lifeline can be seen on the horizon except perhaps a strategically and conditional one from China which is getting more and entrenched in the region as a result of the vacuum left by others. Forty percent of Lebanon’s imports are from China. A bit of political influence in the region is an added benefit with little cost to them. On Instagram, I have noticed many of my Lebanese friends asking others not to post pictures of food or parties in light of the horrendous crisis that is affecting the country.
The American University Hospital, a vital lifeline in Beirut, fired 25% of its staff. Remaining staff are being asked to accept a salary reduction. This comes on top of a political and banking corruption scandal that would make Charles Ponzi himself blush
Meanwhile in the United States, November’s election is being trumpeted as one of the most important ones in this country’s history. Books are being released almost daily on the shenanigans that have been going on in the White House, including a tell-all by the President’s niece Mary Trump. It paints a dark portrait of the wider Trump family and of its most notorious member. To quote Tolstoy in his novel Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Mary writes about a highly dysfunctional and racist family whose legacy is affecting an entire nation. I will leave it at that.
Racial animus isn’t just particular to the U.S. or to the Middle East. In London, the (Ghanaian-born) editor of British Vogue, Edward Enniful was racially profiled by a security guard as he entered his office building and was told to “use the loading bay”. British Vogue “moved quickly” to dismiss the security guard but the brief incident speaks volumes. Enniful remarked that “Change needs to happen now”.
Change is inevitable but seldom does it happen quickly.
This week we lost a great leader in America. Congressman John Lewis was a towering figure in Democratic politics and one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He recently walked with the Black Lives Matter protesters even though he was battling pancreatic cancer. He seemed positive that change would come even though a few weeks weeks earlier the country and much of the rest of the world were marching in protest of the murder of George Floyd.
The world has gone a little topsy-turvy with the coronavirus highlighting much of its inherent ugliness. I still hold some hope that a vaccine will be available soon. This week sadly, we learned that Russian hackers tried to steal data on a potential corona vaccine. Why steal? For sabotage, disinformation or money? From early on in childhood we are thought to share our toys. Why would we as adults not do so in the race to find a vaccine that could potentially help us right-end the world?
To quote Darwin: “in the long history of humankind (and animal kingdom too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”.
I leave you with a promise. I will learn how to start the dishwasher.