Beirut has regained some of its pre-war glitter. Every month, it seems, a glossy magazine publishes a travelogue raving about the city’s restaurants, clubs, and beautiful citizens, inevitably followed by a barrage of indignant comments about how the writer visited all the wrong places. As in the past, what Beirut lacks in infrastructure it makes up for with cachet.
Nearly all tributes to Beirut reproduce cliches about West and East colliding, competing, clashing, and cohabitating, even those trying to undermine the genre. Perhaps the inability to say anything original about Beirut is more the fault of subject than authorship. There’s only so much a person can do with a place too complicated for conventional adjectives. In turn, visitors tend to explore their most vivid fantasies of hedonism and brutality, perhaps history’s most common literary motif—authors since Homer, after all, have juxtaposed sex and war as foils or mirror images.
I write about my experience of Beirut with great trepidation, because I know that every observation will produce hundreds of exclusions. Instead of trying to quantify the place, I want to politicize the city. Doing so will give readers a reason to be angry with me, which is the kind of concrete reaction Beirut has earned.
Beirut thrives on instability. It is a locus of chaos, a wash of human movement, always entertaining envoys of exiles and arrivals, antagonists and diplomats, expats and emigres. It’s no surprise that the city inspires so much reflection. It’s nearly impossible to live in Beirut without a desire to compose letters of love and complaint to faraway audiences.
I write this on a balmy summer night, chain-smoking on my balcony, car horns and fireworks ubiquitous on the nearby corniche, mosquitoes (emboldened by Lebanon’s mounds of organic waste) circling my ankles, water from a mounted air conditioner dripping on my elbow. Tomorrow I will board a plane to the United States, where spontaneous revelry won’t elicit merriment, just the police. The second thing I must do upon my return is quit smoking. The first thing I must do is re-acclimate to people who believe in the fundamental goodness of the American government.
My story of the city begins and ends with the American University, fenced off from Beirut but exemplary of its impossibilities. Like any elite university, AUB trades in mythologies ranging from ludicrous to fanciful. Upon taking office two years ago, its Lebanese-American president, Fadlo Khuri, penned an operatic song called “The Abundance Plan,” which managed to be even worse than its title promised. (Or better, if you’re a fan of good bad music.)
The notion of abundance is central to AUB’s brand. The university markets itself as a harbinger of development, proselytizing civility with the enthusiasm of an entry-level missionary. To hear the university tell it, no less than the future of the Levant is contingent on its ability to compete in the brutal giving economy. Unlike old-fashioned missionaries toting textual material and a tradition of hermeneutics, AUB envisions a technocratic redemption. It doesn’t value a life of ideas, but the drudgery of boldness, innovation, modernity, and other neoliberal buzzwords. AUB is an offshore exemplar of U.S. capitalism.
These commitments have stifled intellectual life on campus. AUB is reputed to be a great place to work, which, like anything subjective, is a question of context and perception. But the imagery of vigorous theoretical and political debate, of young revolutionaries and liberatory rhetoric, is anachronistic, belonging to the glossy brochures of our nostalgia. AUB exploits its reputation while disavowing the substance of its history. Whether or not one enjoys working there is immaterial to a more pressing reality: at the university, freedom is merely a slogan.
AUB’s rapid enervation is impressive, if only by virtue of spectacular faculty obeisance. Immediately Khuri and his vassals announced a disdain for shared governance by interfering in faculty searches, empowering reactionary mediocrities, cosseting the U.S. State Department, appointing leaders without meaningful feedback, exhibiting prickliness to any sort of dissent, and speaking harshly to critics, including students. Because they faced little resistance, they felt free to carry on, a predictable outcome. With no countervailing power impeding its ambitions, AUB management happily accepted the gift of acquiescence.
Individual faculty are implicated, but as a class faculty around the globe are increasingly disempowered, their caution symptomatic of precarious economic and professional conditions: most are just trying to survive an insecure existence, with few viable job options and no incentive to resist. The ambitious ones vie for security through shows of deference. AUB’s new administration was abetted by its commitment to implementing a system of tenure, the first in AUB’s history. Rather than safeguarding dissent, as it promises, we have an example of tenure galvanizing timidity. By making every faculty member subject to review, and thus in competition for a valuable but limited commodity, the administration ensured across-the-board compliance. Despite these special circumstances, the compliance accords to what we observe in general: tenure functions as a greater disciplining mechanism the rarer it becomes.
Elites understand two things better than their antagonists: once an unpopular figure attains power even his most adamant detractors will become sycophants, and once a community becomes acculturated to sycophancy then dissent can be regulated through vigorous peer pressure. AUB management, well-versed in the ways of the ruling class, have leveraged these basic laws of capitalism to create the quintessence of the corporate university. Khuri is the CEO of campus limited, festooned daily on the university’s front page glad-handing investors and guiding underlings. He has yet to be publicly criticized by his reputedly unruly employees.
Malaise can quickly permeate a campus, another advantage administration enjoys. A few months ago, AUB management abruptly eliminated monthly graduate assistant and graduate teaching assistant stipends, leaving it to department chairs to share the news with their students. Once the chairs carried out that duty, students could be forgiven for inferring they’d enjoy no institutional support should they decide to challenge the new policy. The grad students tried to organize, but the best they could muster was a pitiful appeal for better communication. There is no greater sign of defeat than a resistance whose goal is dialogue.
But there’s a larger story here, simultaneously oblique and obvious: Palestine. What does Palestine have to do with this complex of issues? Put it this way: look closely at any controversy around campus corporatization and before long you’ll find Palestine. It’s the most consequential nation in the world, ubiquitous despite being technically nonexistent.
Palestine is no longer the rhetorical flashpoint it was in the days of Nasser and Habash, but it’s still the Arab World’s signature issue. It looms especially large in Lebanon, which is filled with Palestinians and shares a contentious border with Israel. Lebanon’s most populous and powerful party remains devoted to the armed liberation of Palestine. The dream of certain Lebanese idealists is to purge the nation of all foreign elements—ie, Palestinians and Syrians—but I doubt even the most vociferous actually believes it possible. The constant negation of Palestine and Syria ensures their permanence in the national imagination.
AUB assumes the anxieties of the surrounding region it endeavors to transcend and civilize. One can suffer those anxieties simply by claiming or being given an identity. I learned this in my first week, when more than one person whispered to me that I wasn’t entirely welcome. My hiring as the Edward Said Chair of American Studies in 2015 had apparently caused some consternation among board members, investors, administrators, and US politicians, who attempted to cancel my appointment.
I didn’t leave AUB; I was ousted, deprived by management of a permanent job for which I had been selected. For a long time after it happened, I was shocked that Zionist pressure could succeed in the Arab World. Having suffered that pressure in the United States, I knew the danger of aggravating pro-Israel groups, many of which make a living denying the same right to others. The affair made me rethink some of my assumptions about Zionism as a settler-colonial project. I realized that Zionism informs class loyalty as strongly as it does ideological devotion.
The best thing about getting a gig in Lebanon, I figured, would be the inability of Zionists to affect my career. That they traversed a supposedly ironclad border to do exactly that seemed to me a damning reflection on the Arab World. I know this train of thought is distasteful because it amplifies an unjustified sense of self-importance. My insignificance, however, remains perfectly intact, which only highlights the seriousness of the problem. People express shock that such a thing could happen at AUB. I forgive their incredulity. I didn’t think it could happen, either. It was a devastating miscalculation.
This sort of miscalculation is common when we limit Palestine to the contours of its own geography or imagine Israel to be a mere fetish of special interest groups. We need to understand Zionism in relation to issues of class and racism in a global setting. Where people aspire to respectability, Palestine—as a site of liberatory struggle and not a social media brand—is a detriment, just as surely in Beirut or Amman as in New York City. Palestine’s disrepute is a good thing insofar as the nation retains a revolutionary appeal. Its disrepute isn’t so good for people who want to identify with it and still earn a living. When anti-Zionist politics get suppressed in Arab countries, the obvious explanation is anti-Palestinianism, yet it’s equally likely to be the exertion of plutocratic strictures against dissent, articulated, as always, in concert with affirmations of state power.
In fact, a token of maturity in Arab countries, as defined by Western politicians and the local elites in their employ, is the willingness to overcome archaic tribal mentalities and support normalization with Israel. Formal and under-the-table alliances with the venerable Zionist enemy are now common in the Arab World. As a result, normalization doubles as rationality; achieving the status of modern is contingent on accepting Israel’s validity. One of the greatest achievements of the old colonial powers is the reproduction of their influence in former possessions by orchestrating economies that attach material rewards to consent.
This influence permeates campus managerial cultures. To upper administrators, Zionism isn’t necessarily a supremacist ideology of settler colonization and ethnic cleansing or an inspiring liberation movement of persecuted underdogs. It is neoliberalism. It is deference to power. It is normativity. It is civility. It is repression. It is capitalism. It is conformity. It is, above all, a devotion that pleases the American master, something to which all good clerks aspire.
AUB doesn’t want to banish people for supporting Palestine’s liberation, but for refusing to decontextualize Palestine’s liberation from global frameworks of anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-colonization. Few campuses tolerate this sort of commitment. Ideologies collaborate with political identities to produce bankable skillsets. Zionism is a foolproof path to a safe identity. No Lebanese, even those who perform operatic conformity, would identify as a Zionist. Plenty, however, maintain the conditions that allow ethnonationalism to flourish.
In its own strange way, “The Abundance Plan” makes perfect sense. Its main problem isn’t terrible composition, but terminological confusion. AUB doesn’t seek abundance, something that implies shared access; it pursues accumulation on behalf of those who safeguard the brand.
Reflecting the cultural habits it purports to transcend, AUB employs a circuitous process to arrive at a simple desire. Look at a map of Beirut. There are few right angles. The streets loop and curve in ways that make little sense in two dimensions. Walk the city, though, and you realize that the curvatures represent hills and gullies—the streets devise a kind of asphalt terracing hosting high-rises instead of crops. These cartographic undulations typify the city’s disposition.
While inequality, especially of income, is everywhere visible, it rarely gets featured in paeans to Beirut’s gritty exoticism. Most writers choose to ignore the city’s multinational subculture of slaves and refugees. Thousands of outsiders (and some locals) are captive to putative employers who rarely face sanction because they represent the state. Stories of ungodly abuse circulate, but never in polite company. Lebanon’s ballyhooed modernity, as in the old countries its devotees adore, achieves solvency through the exploitation of foreigners.
I could never expunge this aspect of Beirut from my consciousness. What connections, I often wondered, exist between the nearby horrors of Zionist colonization and the racial and economic iniquities within Lebanese society? (While I focus on Lebanon because of my time living there, it’s important to recognize that the same questions apply to nearly all nation-states.) The two problems seem discrete, but I could never shake the sense that they are related. I’ve been cautious not to subsume or minimize the seriousness of racism and labor exploitation in Lebanon. Still, the question nagged.
AUB enabled me to discern the linkages. Befitting the self-image of a benighted institution, AUB is awash in discourses of tolerance and humanism, a rhetoric of invention painstakingly calibrated for the educated consumer, but the university’s essential function, consecrated in the same discourses, is to maintain a class order that engenders injustice. If faculty cannot, or will not, resist, then they become complicit in administrative machinations that abet ruling class imperatives (something many faculty see as their own).
If we displace AUB from West Beirut, then we can discover its relationships with political parties, multinational conglomerates, dictators and potentates, real estate bosses, and other wealthy universities. These are not networks, a word that suggests discreteness, but a sort of corporate kinship. AUB serves the interests of the social and economic classes that instigate migration of the poor and thereby produce the conditions for transnational slavery. Israel enforces those conditions.
Global inequality wouldn’t exist in its current manifestations without settler colonization. Neither problem will be solved in isolation. My analysis elides significant differences, and these issues require a more careful discussion than what I’ve provided, but a good starting point is recognition that anti-Zionism must supersede a provincial understanding of Israel’s role in the world. It’s important to quit thinking about Zionism as a problem exclusive to Palestinians, though they most directly suffer its violence. Israel is nested in systems of racial capitalism from which Zionism emerged and to which it attaches itself in return.
Here’s why the corporate university, even one in a country hostile to Israel, sees anti-Zionism as inherently threatening.
Now I am writing from northern Virginia. I can’t quite get accustomed to artificial lakes and walking paths, apartment complexes surrounded by parking spaces, or the verdant musk of freshly-cut grass. Everywhere I drive, I see American flags pasted on the storm doors of suburban homes, humble little significations of civic virtue. I’d forgotten the importance of displaying patriotism in the United States. I miss Beirut.
But longing doesn’t ameliorate intellectual and economic alienation. The same limits of political imagination exist in both Lebanon and Virginia. The two places share few similarities of culture and topography, but each in its own way acclimates denizens to capitalist indignities. In whimsical moments, we talk about our movements across the globe, wanderlust forever colliding with physical limitation, but stress and restlessness are constant because their sources await wherever we travel.
AUB taught me that lesson. I moved to the Middle East to escape Zionism, but encountered it upon my arrival. Some ideologies cannot be evaded, only destroyed. This is especially true of ideologies that portend destruction.
Yet there’s been great value in these journeys across the Atlantic. I’ve come to understand that there’s wisdom in humility and lightness in abundance. And so as I sit among the elegant shrubbery and boxy shopping centers of the DC suburbs, where bureaucratic surplus nests in generic housing, I take solace in the rhyme schemes of a great composer who tried, but couldn’t save me:
The world was rarely darker,
when a wise man crossed the seas
The mission he was seeking,
would almost bring him to his knees
He saw the Levant darkening,
its people in distress
The last thing he was thinking,
was whom he might impress.