Dispatches from Kabul: French Words and Fighter Jets

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Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 is currently working as an attorney in Kabul, Afghanistan. This post is part of a series of reflections on her experiences there.

There’s an art gallery just off Armenia street in the Mar Mikhail district of Beirut that sells a variety of novelty goods – soap from Aleppo, hand-stamped Iranian linens, black and white photographs from the Lebanese Civil War, books on art. As I was perusing the shelves I came across a notebook with text clippings and war motifs pasted to its cover, a dècoupage of French words and fighter jets. Along the bottom of the front cover there was a phrase: Parce que l’incohérence est preferable à l’ordre qui deforme. It’s a quote from the French philosopher, Roland Barthes, which translates directly to: incoherence is preferable to an order that deforms. I haven’t read Barthes, nor do I claim expertise in French post-structuralism or constructivism or semiotics, but taken on its face, and in light of the unstable political systems in which I live and work, it gave me pause. Dans quelle mesure cette déclaration est-elle correcte? To what extent is that statement true? Precariousness becomes a form of identity in places where nothing sticks – not ideologies, not empires, not armies – but surely chaos and disorder is the regrettable result of circumstance, not rational belief. The fight for successive orders is the history of war, and I imagined Barthes’ words in the mouths of radicals from Raqqa to Kandahar.

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In the late afternoon, the church bells at St. George’s ring out loud and clear across the Martyr’s Square in Beirut, and it feels, for a moment, as if you’re standing in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the Marian church that inspired the cathedral’s neoclassical design. Soon after, the call to prayer begins, projected from the 72-meter-high minarets of the Mohammad Al-Amin mosque adjacent, a massive structure that was once a Crusader church. Inside the cathedral, the hymnals can be read left to right and front to back in French, and right to left and back to front in Arabic. Priests in long, black robes congregate on the same square where imams and veiled women enter the mosque to pray. It is now a rarity in the Middle East and the Levant for Christians and Muslims to worship in such close proximity; one almost forgets that Christianity was born there. But Lebanon is distinctive in the region with 18 officially recognized sects, including significant Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Druze populations. The delicate balance of power between them is enshrined in the law, a confessional framework which has contributed to a seemingly tolerant, peaceful, and culturally rich society.

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And yet there are tensions just beneath the surface. Lebanese Muslims are considerably more secular than their regional peers, but surrounded by a great battlefield, and subject to the growing political and military power of the Shiite militia, Hezbollah, extremist ideologies threaten to upset the balance of power that has existed since the end of the Lebanese civil war. There are other issues, too, which cause divisions within a once robust civil society. Consumerism, some say, has replaced the soul of the nation, and corporate gentrification has erased its identity. Indeed, modern day Beirut is an unusual mixture of attitudes, aesthetics, and ideas.

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There are stark reminders of the country’s troubled past on nearly every street corner. The shell of the Holiday Inn, for example, damaged by heavy artillery fire during the war, now sits derelict behind the impeccably renovated Phoenicia, one of Beirut’s historic luxury hotels. Located close to the sea and towering above most of the surrounding buildings, the Holiday Inn was considered a strategic military asset, and is an untouched reminder that the city’s occupants turned their homes into an open battleground, and advanced on their enemies from alley to alley, building to building. And while these markers remain, the gentrification process has been otherwise swift. Glass and steel skyscrapers tower over historical buildings and Bauhaus-style apartment complexes throughout the city. Modern souks, Disney in tone, are filled with Hermès and Prada, and $15 cocktails with ironic names are available alongside fusion dishes in bohemian bars and trendy restaurants. At the congested arteries throughout the city, Maseratis idle in traffic with dilapidated, German-sourced Mercedes Benz from the 1970’s and 80’s, and tawdry billboards with the faces of corrupt politicians are interspersed with bright, neo-baroque facades. There are only a few hole-in-the wall cafes on the backstreets of Verdun and other middle class neighborhoods, places where weary-eyed men can still smoke shisha and gaze out onto the loud, glistening scene.

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Lebanon is a multi-sectarian country at peace in a region torn apart by war. But there is growing discontent. To some, a bloody fifteen-year power struggle seems hardly worth what Beirut has become: a soulless remake of one of the oldest cities in the world. Others view the preservation of a confessional power-sharing system as an outdated mechanism that has no place governing a thriving secular society. And to a significant faction, a party of principle – however radical – with Hezbollah’s political and military power is almost preferable to the corrupt and inept regime that exists. Each group seeks to remedy the perceived wrongs by lobbying for a new order; each faction believes in their vision of the right.

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There are no church bells in Afghanistan, and the chapel at the Italian Embassy has been de facto off-limits since the rocket attack on the compound in January. Remarkably, there is one remaining synagogue in Kabul, which has been reduced to an upstairs room on a nondescript street. Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but like Lebanon, it is also divided along sectarian lines. More than 100,000 people died in the civil war that followed the Soviet’s withdrawal in 1989, a conflict that broke largely along ethnic lines among the Pashtuns and the smaller Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek populations.

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Ethnic and tribal issues continue to colour the political landscape, and though efforts are being made to reconcile factions and bring all parties to the negotiating table, the enmities are deep-seated and emotional. Many are skeptical that the amnesty deal recently made with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once leader of the Islamist organization Hizb-e Islami and member of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe, will lead to productive peace talks. Many more are angered that the deal was offered in the first place. Similarly, the American drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour last week in Balochistan has only yielded the swift appointment of the extremist cleric Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada, who has rejected peace talks outright, vowing more terror.

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In Kabul, gentrification comes in the form of “Poppy Palaces” with candy-striped blast walls and gaudy shopping centers rather than modern skyscrapers and trendy bars. Where Beirut is an admixture of attitudes, aesthetics, and ideas, Kabul is homogenously concrete-walled and razor-wired, and many of its citizens are preoccupied with one idea: getting out. Suicide bombings are like traffic accidents: they happen in an instant, and the scene, bloody and twisted, is cleared up in hours so the city can carry on in its usual frenzied rhythm. As the attacks become more frequent and more deadly, higher and thicker walls are erected, guards are armed and re-trained, and people shrink behind their fortresses. The deterioration of the security situation means that the laws and policies that are meant to govern suffer as well. Government institutions are weak and run on an elaborate system of bribery, such that taxes cannot be properly collected, businesses cannot renew their licenses, and the criminal justice system cannot be depended upon to prosecute and punish crimes. A system sustained by the making of unsavory alliances, the payment of bribes, and the acquiescence to forces stronger than reason and law – namely, bombs and bullets – is an extreme version of a flawed order, bordering on incoherence.

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How much incoherence is preferable to what type and degree of deformity? I was still thinking about Barthes’ puzzling phrase while en route to Ba’albek, a city known to be a Hezbollah stronghold just 75 km north of Damascus. It was Election Day in Lebanon, and to quell any possible unrest, there was a heavy government military presence throughout the Bekaa Valley, which made it safe enough to venture south along the Syrian border. We were traveling to see the Roman ruins at Heliopolis, one of the most famous sanctuaries of the Roman world, and a model of Imperial Roman architecture. Built over a period of more than two centuries on a plaza made of 24 monoliths – the largest weighing over 800 tons – the structures were some of the grandest the Romans ever built. Given the tense political situation in Lebanon that day, we had the entire site to ourselves, and we spent the afternoon wandering through what were once the stately temples of Venus, Jupiter, and Bacchus.

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Some say you can hear the ongoing war in neighboring Syria from Heliopolis, but aside from the music blaring from the vehicles of pro-Hezbollah campaigners, it was peaceful and quiet at the ruins. Perhaps it was the lack of present conflict that gave me leave to reflect on historical conquests, the building and razing of great civilizations, and the wars that were fought on the very ground upon which we stood. In 47 BC, Julius Caesar settled a legion in Ba’albek and began construction of the temple of Jupiter.

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Over the next three centuries, Heliopolis was filled with some of the most impressive religious buildings ever constructed in the far-reaching Roman Empire. Upon the rise of Christianity, the town became a battleground – early Christians denounced the practices of the local pagans, and Constantine, though not yet Christian, demolished the temple of Venus. Then, in the year 634 AD, Muslim armies entered Syria and besieged Ba’albek. Over the next few centuries, the temples were controlled by various Islamic dynasties, including the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Fatamids, as well as the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks.

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The ruins at Heliopolis are majestic even in decay, and yet amidst the beauty there is tragedy in the knowledge of the destruction that came before. Some modern orders seem too false to be real, and others too weak to continue. Eventually we tear them all down to build what the powerful compel: their vision of the right and the good. The fight for successive orders is the history of war, and we carry on as we always have, destroying the evil we see and imposing new ideas, structures, and rules on the incoherence we create. Mais quand ce cycle finira-t-il? But when does this cycle end? Perhaps the only certainty we have is that it doesn’t, and we will continue dancing on the ruins of ancient civilizations while building our own.

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