Reflecting on Lebanon’s current moment is a chance to step into multiple worlds to take down borders and forge more just ones.
لبنانُ! أَوَّلُكَ الدّنيا، وآخِرُكَ الدنيا”
“وبعدَك لا أُفْقٌ ولا شُهُبُ
الياس أبو شبكة (١٩٠٣-١٩٤٧)
“Lebanon, you are the beginning of the world and the end of the world
And beyond you, there are neither horizons nor meteors” (author’s translation)
– Elias Abou Chabakeh, Lebanese poet (1903-1947)
I remembered Abou Chabakeh’s lines, saturated in deep-seated parochialism and singular self-sufficiency, when I introduced my Brit Lit students to worldmaking, imagined and forged by literature and art. This concept draws on the work of the American philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906-1988), who sees in cultural expressions a confluence of material and intellectual forces shaping and conditioning real and fictional worlds – their boundaries, their past, present, and future. To Abou Chabakeh, writing in the aftermath of France’s imperialist formation of Greater Lebanon in 1920, the fledgling nation-state contained the world in its entirety: a world in a poem. Quite tellingly, Abou Chabakeh’s planetary fantasy of national triumph is completely detached from the larger Arab struggle for decolonisation. His ideal stands alone: insular, superior, wall-erecting – one that I would escape as far as I could: socially, intellectually, and emotionally.
Teaching is like that, sometimes; it infuses memories into the texts we are mining. At its core, teaching is a form of listening – listening to others and sometimes, listening to the ghosts that haunt us. Abou Chabakeh’s nationalist poetry haunts me. I, a child of the Civil War, recall reciting this nostalgic, nativist incantation as a quasi-pledge of allegiance to a venerated world I arrived into when it had already been lost. By tracing the vocabulary of empire, borders and nation-building threading through British literary history, I reflect on the foundational fictions that the patriotic poetry of Abou Chabakeh tells itself about Lebanon and its place in the world. I thought I left this world behind, ossified and mythified, and I resent its undiminished tug on my psyche.
It seems apt that I started planning this course, one that promises to cross boundaries and generic time periods, merely weeks after returning from a harrowing trip to visit my ailing dad in Lebanon. You see, for the last few years, my country of origin has suffered calamities big and small, tragic and sometimes bordering on the farcical: from medicine shortage, to a fuel crisis, to price inflation, the list of state-sanctioned crises grows by the day. Amid rampant political and financial corruption, the losses, the ruins are hard to tally. My parents, like so many, many others, live a life of perpetual precarity: they have lost their lives’ savings; they purchase privately-hauled water; they ration their food; they self-medicate; they queue up for long hours to buy gasoline, cars clogging the highway. Perhaps metaphorically, their once happy, healthy chickens stopped laying eggs. They tell me, even if unconvincingly, that their lives are in God’s hands. Mashallah and alhamdulillah.
In preparation for my trip, I buy vitamin supplements and painkillers in bulk. I order rechargeable flashlights and batteries online. I stock my suitcases with mundane items like deodorant, shampoo, and dish soap. I bring my mother an assortment of bonbons and chocolates, now delicacies she cannot afford. I resist the urge to compare myself to a character in a dystopian novel. Fictive hellscapes are my community’s daily reality. There is no catharsis here – only a raw and visceral collision with a damaged world.
Like Abou Chabakeh fantasy of a cosmic Lebanon, Beowulf’s Herot, the fictional mead-hall where major events in the early medieval poem take place, is construed as the “wonder of the world”. I tell my students we should feel uneasy about the concept of imago mundi, or a place as the image of the world. Mythologising a place, idealising a homeland, whether it is Herot, Lebanon, or the United States, engenders hierarchy. If only a select few are deemed privy to this fantastical, edenic topography, then a de facto need for border policing and criminalisation follows suit. Put differently, border-making justifies racist violence to ensure that those considered unworthy and disposable in this hierarchy of differentiation are denied entry into this fantastical world of wonder and abundance.
My students are understandably perplexed. We are, after all, troubling the dance of power, knowledge, and resistance between the privileged and the deracinated, the entitled and the non-entitled.
The jolt of recognition returns in our lesson on pre-modern cartography, which is inspired by Nedda Mehdizadeh’s capacious pedagogy. My class examines the performative speech act of putting the word “America” on Martin Waldseemüller’s world map for the first time in 1507 as a form of violent worldmaking. Indeed, the act of naming is a power move; it inscribes the settler colonial project of white Europeans in the Americas into existence. It is an origin story, a “birth certificate” as the Library of Congress calls it, predicated on the genocide of Indigenous populations, the forced migration and labour of enslaved Africans, and the extraction of land resources. More importantly, the fiction of totality that maps communicate constitutes an act of “worlding” (cf. Spivak 1985); one that erases the memory, subjectivity, and geography of non-white people under the holistic banner of the “world”. The same imperial forces that legitimised settler colonialism in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, arbitrarily divided the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the outset of the twentieth century. The French and English, as victors of World War I, performed a similar act of domination that reordered the world and cemented white European imperialism at the top of the global hierarchy. They surveyed lands and drew borders across Greater Syria that aligned with their self-interest and crushed native world-building aspirations. By its very essence, the long history of map-making tells a recurrent story of power and displacement.
Further on, when we look at the Hereford Mappa Mundi (ca. 1300) and Il-Idrisi’s world map (1154) side by side, my students and I grapple with what it means to have two maps that position different geographical places as their focal centres – Jerusalem in the first, and Mecca, in the second. While the Mappa Mundi follows the three divisions of Asia, Europe, and Africa common in European medieval world maps, Al-Idrissi’s world is divided into the seven climates after Ptolomy, where the geographical vistas inhabited by Arabs appear as most viable, fertile. How can we see the medieval past, my class asked, through Arab and Muslim eyes? To what extent can we trouble a hermetically-sealed system of knowledge production that lionises Europe as the epicentre of worldmaking?
Literary history affords the space and scope to ruminate over these questions. It engages in worldmaking by dwelling on the stories that shape known and imagined worlds. In other words, our worlds are animated by what we mythologise, who we alienate and dehumanise, how we define our personhood, and where from our deepest desires and fears come. I understand people’s hesitation – scepticism, even – about drawing parallels between different temporalities and geographies, seeing in this enfolding of time and space an anachronism or an oversimplification. However, unless we actively reframe the questions we ask, reconceive the stories we tell, and open up the publics we serve, we will continue to recreate that hierarchical world that has been bequeathed to us by hegemonic knowledge producers. In this light, Puck’s famous line in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “to put a girdle round about the earth,” reveals its sinister underbelly. Puck’s colonial fantasy to circumnavigate and stake the world in forty minutes frames worldmaking in lyrical language. Indeed, Puck’s beautiful imagery conceals the colonial forces that destroy Indigenous ecologies and erect extractive systems. Encoded in the language of wonder, desire and expansion is the undercurrent of violence intrinsic to the imperial project. In other words, the back-seam of pre-modern European exploration is racial exploitation.
For another lesson, my dear friend Matthew Harrison suggested that I teach the early medieval poem, ‘The Ruin’ to inhabit this sense of utter loss, of living a life amid the rubble of the past. In class, we dwell on these profoundly moving lines:
[…] The halls of the city
once were bright: there were many bath-houses,
a lofty treasury of peaked roofs, many troop-roads, many mead-halls
filled with human-joys until that terrible chance changed all that.
In this early medieval poem, we encounter layers of grief, echoing and multiplying. My students and I finally share a brief moment of mutual affirmation. The struggle, the “terrible chance”, that we collectively, albeit unequally, endured during the pandemic makes us empathise, albeit selectively, with this overwhelming sense of suffering. Our losses of “human joys” operate as a shared language.
And my thoughts drift back to my communities in Lebanon, and the stirring urge to affirm their lives amid the litany of devastation: the port explosion of 2020; the ongoing financial collapse; the ravages of the pandemic; and the dispossession of migrant workers and refugees. Paradoxically, their losses refuse to be romanticised: “No poetry in the ashes,” as the poet Suhair Hamad tells us. Teaching is like that, sometimes. It holds space for the impossibility of rendering tragedies as artistically coherent moments in time.
As we contemplate the value of literature in the face of calamity, my students and I wonder about the stories that will emerge out of this moment of enormous loss? What traumas will we pass down? What shapes will our ruins take? What phantoms will we release? What fragments will we leave behind, about what we had and who we lost? And then, suddenly, amid the engulfing sense of destruction, a fragile question lingers as a testament to the intense emotional bonds that poetry affords: can we open ourselves to the possibility of forging a different, more just world? In the aftermath of disaster, we are left with the fragile hope that our worldmaking would be transformed by the possibilities of a radical imagination and creative practices; by the freedom to tell stories and love fiercely; and by dreams of being with, in, and for a borderless world.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons