BEIRUT: I am an avid reader of Marwan Iskandar's weekly columns in Annahar. Every Friday I view such prospects with fervent anticipation. I do so for largely two reasons: First, his columns are usually dense with empirical and factual disclosures about some of the dismaying economic, socio-cultural and political pathologies of our beleaguered republic
Second, he then goes on, like an astute social scientist, to provide a meaningful context which helps us to understand why these dismaying realities remain unaddressed.
This Friday's column (August 31) was particularly appealing to me. In fact, l was beholden by it. It took me by surprise. Marwan after all, by schooling and avocation, is an economist. Yet the title of his column and the catchy metaphor he employed - "al-SHATARAH" Gheir "al-'AMARAH" - clearly unbeknownst to him, is an insightful appropriation of Emile Durkheim's seminal concept of ANOMIE.
Durkheim, the eminent French classical sociologist, is a favorite of mine. In my work on post-war Lebanon, l relied heavily on his perspective of anomie to account for the persisting disparity between exuberant, excessive expectations and aroused desires in opposition to executive ineffectiveness and failure to fulfill one's desired expectations. Hence society is gripped by a disheartening state of constant seeking without fulfillment. This is precisely what Durkheim meant by anomie.
The SHATIR in Durkheimian terms is not just a clever and shrewd .person. In Lebanon, he appropriates the devious and pernicious predispositions of being cunning, guileful and sly. In short, to use the popular local vernacular, he becomes "Harbook". His avowed edict, indeed his mantra, is how to attain his coveted ends by deceitful and devious means. In this regard anomie in Lebanon has become a pervasive socio-cultural phenomenon and not merely an individual or psychological state.
The post-war societal transformations and popular expectations have become so enticing that groups are driven to seek them by fair means if possible and foul means if necessary. In this bewildering sense, fair becomes foul and foul becomes fair. And it is in this sense that "SHATARAH" takes precedence over "'AMARAH".
This disjunction is most apparent at the state level where a massive number of government projects, the result of excessive and exuberant planning (and Marwan reminds us of many of them) which have suffered the fate of becoming unrealized blueprints. Let me mention a few: Litani Project, the Tripoli International Fair, Riyak Airport, Solidere's restoration of the Bourj Square, the Garden of Forgiveness. There are also approved plans to enlarge and to upgrade and safeguard power plants to enhance the egregious electricity shortages. All these abortive and costly projects are an inescapable byproduct of exuberant "SHATARAH" but impotent "AMARAH".
Since I am a sociologist, let me amplify a bit on how this interplay between these two salient elements is working itself out in Lebanon. At the moment, Lebanon, more perhaps than at any other time in its recent history, is a textbook example of Durkheim's anomie. More explicitly, society's norms can no longer impose effective control over people's impulses. In such a setting, "Shatarah" becomes rampant. They have a heyday, as they do in Lebanon.
In times of rapid social change, people face considerable confusion, uncertainty, and conflict in expectations. Not only do the norms themselves become ambiguous, but people's desires and expectations become extravagant and excessive. The limits between the possible and the impossible are unknown, as are those between the just and the unjust, between what is moderate and immoderate. Consequently, it is then that people become victims of a chronic condition, as I noted earlier, of constant seeking without fulfillment.
The Lebanese today is not only being denied his/her natural claim to live in a decent, orderly, affordable and edifying environment. Individuals are beginning to realize that they cannot secure even their daily needs for food, shelter, security, safety, and public utilities unless they compromise themselves and violate society's norms or their own moral principles. They are compelled, for example, to resort to irregular, often devious, means to guarantee their water, electricity, fuel telecommunication needs. In short, they become helpless victims of extortion and fraud. This is when the "Shater" and "Harbook" become coveted social icons.
The exorbitant prices one pays cannot be simply a by-product of natural inflationary market tendencies. It reflects the extortion and heavy exactions that agents and self-appointed guardians, patrons and middlemen impose. For example, fuel oil, petrol, and gas prices have more than tripled during the past few years as well as rent, medications, clothing, schooling and other food products. Property in Saifi Village that was valued at $1500 per square meter in 2002 is now valued at $7000.
Such unusual circumstances notwithstanding, Lebanon has been undergoing an unprecedented construction boom of immense proportions. Upscale luxury buildings - frequently designed by international star architects of the caliber of Zaha Hadeed, RenzoPiano, Jean Nouvelle - are sold prior to their completion. Transactions and investment in real estate are largely sparked by speculative considerations. Hence it is not uncommon that a large number of the newly constructed apartments remain vacant.
What exacerbates this disjunction between "Shatarah" and "Amarah", or between aroused expectations and the failure of the Lebanese to fulfill them is the role of the media in romanticizing and stylizing the desired goods. Prior to the advent of the mega-conglomerates, when the production of news, culture, sports, and entertainment, were moderate and reasonable, the average consumer had no chance to desire material objects beyond their reach. Today, they are taken a hostage or at least are at the mercy of this disparity between stimulated and hyped desires and the inability to reach them.
It is in this poignant sense that the Lebanese today are victims of the prosaic distinction that Ghassan Hage, an imminent Lebanese-Australian scholar, makes between "Hope" and "Joy". Individuals live in perpetual hope without any intrinsic or genuine joy or inner fulfillment. Being impetuous, with notoriously short attention spans, the Lebanese are not predisposed to any form of delayed gratification. Like the "Shater", they are driven by the urge for impulsive and instant gratification. Hence waiting, another matter of concern to Hage, is not a psychological and existential state which is compatible with the impetuous inclinations of Lebanese. We are much too narcissistic and indulgent in our unappeased longing for "jouissance" that we cannot possibly "wait properly".
Dr. Samir Khalaf is a retired professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut and has the been a director of the Centre for Behavioural Research at the university since 1994. He received his PhD in Sociology in 1964 from Princeton University.
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