interviewed by Predrag Pajdic, February 2007

You are Lebanese but living and working in Australia. How did you end up there and why?

I came to Australia on 26 December 1975 due to the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon. The war erupted in our neighbourhood and a militia began recruiting local boys, including my 13 year old younger brother. Choosing not to take part in the violence, we rushed to the Australian Embassy to apply for a visa. Thankfully it was still open for business. We applied for an immigration visa and within 6 months flew to Melbourne to where my uncle lived. We arrived with the status of 'migrants' and not as 'refugees'. A few weeks later the Australian Embassy in Beirut closed and relocated to Cyprus. In effect anyone in Lebanon who wanted to flee to Australia had to travel to another country like Cyprus in order to apply for an Australian visa. Relatives who decided to brave the war were subsequently turned into refugees in their own country. In 1988, when Israel continued its invasion of the south of Lebanon, air raids obliterated my father's village Salhié sending those who survived, and those who did not stay to resist, fleeing to other villages.

It is now February 2007 and it looks as though the situation in Lebanon is about to erupt. Do you understand why?

I follow the situation in Lebanon via online newspapers and the local media here. As with the 1975 civil war there are many conflicts competing for resolutions. Although I sincerely hope that tensions get resolved through negotiations, too many challenging national, sectarian and international phenomena are again being played out in Lebanon. This country is a microcosm of world politics and what happens there is a refection of the intense and underground conflicts happening elsewhere. Of course, Israel and its contempt for Lebanese and Palestinian sovereignty is a major cause for the conflicts taking place in Lebanon, as the 2006 Lebanese summer war, the erection of a wall through Palestinian homes, and lands and the constant bombardment of Gaza has clearly demonstrated, but Israel's wanton destruction of infrastructure over weeks and its targeting of civilians through the dropping of over hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs after the cease-fire had taken effect, are also symbols of how all the Arabs are made to feel insignificant on the world stage. Also, the number of UN vetoes by Israel's arms supplier, the United States, to resolutions put forward by many Arab countries about violations of human rights abuses to Palestinians and the Lebanese, has created a state of quiet (and at times not so quiet) indignation and humiliation over the decades.

Many people in the Arab world, especially in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, oscillate between despondency and outrage, between two types of depersonalisation: shallow simulation of western ideals and the adoption of capitalist performatives, or the enactment of pre-colonial performatives designed to be perceived as a model for a post-Western hegemony. Through either of these two states, the humiliated and depersonalised individual therefore attempts to find a reason or a solution for their depersonalisation. Given that their nation-state has proven time and time again that it is incapable of providing them with basic services such as security, education and health, a collective state of depression has taken hold and manifests itself now through abdicating responsibility to what the individual perceives as a higher force. As a Lebanese I can speak of what I feel is happening in Lebanon.

On the one hand, some Lebanese find pride, solace and solution, and a restoration of the 'I', of their person, through the adoption and assertion of religious performatives. Through globalisation and the constant undermining of Lebanon and Palestine as autonomous nation-states, the post-Westphalian nation-state model, that took place coincidentally at the end of the Orient's Golden Age, is being questioned organically as well as politically and a reconfiguration of belonging is taking place. Faith, for some, is perceived as being more able to rebuild a sense of belonging and community than the Nation. The demographically quasi-evenly balanced distribution of different sects sets Lebanon on an interesting fork in the history of world politics. How the Lebanese people can come up with a formula for faith-based tolerance and governance will, I think, create resonance elsewhere in the world.

On the other hand, some Lebanese find a solution in the embrace and simulation of anything that's perceived as belonging to the powerful West and therefore the adoption of capitalistic performatives. This usually takes the form of avid consumerism and a belief that economic wealth, privatisation and free trade would solve the country's problems and provide individuals with desperately needed services. For some, capitalism emerges as a unifying force that would allow the individual in Lebanon to belong to a globalised world.

A state of crisis is taking hold in Lebanon right now because these states of depersonalisations have been brought into sharp relief through the huge economic drop in standards of living following the 2006 summer war, coupled with a perception of an Israeli defeat — the first in history. The will of Israel to take Lebanon back 20 years has in fact backfired and has fuelled instead in the Lebanese a justified feeling of revolt.

Interestingly, both forms of depersonalisations have at their core a belief that the nation-state is all but a redundant form of sovereignty, a fact made most poignant with the insistence by a large number of Lebanese to excessively and obsessively plaster their homes and their public spaces with the Lebanese flag and what it symbolises.

In short, human dignity and honour, that Arabic people consider of the utmost importance, is deeply felt right now in Lebanon. The summer 2006 war that ended with a perceived humiliating Israeli withdrawal has allowed some to feel that for the first time since 1948 their honour can be restored after all. What is at stake now more than ever before therefore, is how much this perception of a restored honour system can create the grounds for an inflated and urgent sense of redemption and more importantly, how not to be crushed by the anachronistic belief that a global capitalist system or a faith-based form of governance will in the end distribute dignity to the Palestinians, to the Lebanese, to the Iraqis and to the Arabs as a whole.

In times like these, how does it feel for you to be an Arab? Also could you imagine Lebanon, for example in 20 years from now?

To be an Arab now is truly challenging and exciting. I believe the cultural capital of the Arab individual is so rich that there's much to learn from it. The 'In Focus' exhibition is one example of how Arab artists, writers and filmmakers can offer a world view that is still somewhat free from market forces and yet so charged with emotions, humour and an unusual perspective from a people who for so long have been denied access to prominent world stages.

In the question earlier, I spoke about depersonalisation and how the Lebanese in general perceive their current reality. I would like to propose that there are alternative processes to the ones highlighted above. These alternative processes that encompass the aesthetics have at their core a belief in a human nature that is instinctive and sovereign on the one hand and yet endowed with a will and need for communicability and the sharing of hopes and aspirations on the other. Arab artists, writers and filmmakers are at last beginning to be heard. The challenge now facing them is how to express their anguish, fears, desires and dreams without falling prey to the very process that has entrapped them for so long: victimhood and its commodification, which is something that the state of Israel has turned into a fine art. Elsewhere I wrote about the dangers of perceiving of oneself as a victim and how this state can lead to a downwards spiral whose ultimate and irresponsible target is exploitation and aggression towards others. The creative Arab has a responsibility to surface these hidden emotions and to highlight them while accessing the unheimlich, that entity that resides at the boundary of the conscious and unconscious and where fear of the other is lodged. Much can be said and expressed about the horrors and humiliations the Arab individual has faced and unfortunately, will continue to face for a long time to come, but the opportunity to disrupt the cycle of victimhood and to challenge notions of us and them while accessing the pains and lessons of the past and present should not be missed.

For this reason, it is crucial for the creative Arab to turn his or her gaze inwards and to sharpen their senses in order to engage critically with their own societies whether at home or in the diaspora. This has the advantage of not only recognising, predicting and alerting to negative and destructive patterns taking place in Arab countries, but also to avert victimhood and its exploitation. A subjective awareness and turning the gaze inward for all concerned therefore is a critical factor in the search for the kind of truth the thinking individual attempts to reach for.

I am not able to imagine Lebanon 20 years from now, but I do believe what will emerge from Lebanese artists, writers and filmmakers will be valuable in providing a view of what happens to a society that has experienced internal as well as external conflict and aggression for so long.