Friday, August 9, 2013

Lady of the manor

The Lebanese were allowed a peek into the abyss of their political culture this week, when Nabih Berri’s NBN station interviewed Sonya al-Rassy, the daughter of the late President Sleiman Franjieh.

The interview, alternatively hilarious, nauseating, and disturbingly revealing, was a coup of sorts for Berri. He must have taken pleasure in hosting Rassy’s repeated putdowns of the energy minister, Gebran Bassil, at a time when Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjieh, the grandson and namesake of the former president, are at odds over Hezbollah’s decision to extend the term of parliament and of army commander Jean Kahwaji. Aoun unsuccessfully opposed both initiatives, and as a consequence relations between him and Hezbollah have become, to quote an Aounist parliamentarian, “cold.”

However, it’s the worldview that al-Rassy brought with her that was most remarkable. Here was someone from a prominent family who seemed bothered that social hierarchies were breaking down, whose facts were loose, and whose interpretive powers were suspect.

Al-Rassy was scornful of Bassil, saying that his family “were our guys in Batroun,” reducing the minister’s family to that of Franjiehs' minions. One could delight in the way al-Rassy cut the self-important Bassil down to size, but the fun ended there. Lebanon has fundamentally changed in recent decades and when al-Rassy suggested that the Bassils had come from nothing and “didn’t own a car,” she missed that – well – today almost everybody owns a car.

To al-Rassy people have their allotted place in an unchanging system, and should not aspire to transcend their station. What is the world coming to, she wondered, when “the Karami son is shot at in Tripoli?” What is going on when Samir Geagea, whose father was a policeman and “used to sound the trumpet” in the Franjieh household, becomes an influential political figure?

In the most astounding exchange of the interview, al-Rassy almost levitated with pride when saying that, alone with the Jumblatts, hers was a “feudal family” (inadvertently revealing, not for the first time, that the Druze leader is a model of sorts to the Franjiehs). These days, laying claim to a medieval institution is not something to boast about, and al-Rassy didn’t see the irony of being invited by employees of a Shiite politician to a program in which she profusely praised another Shiite leader, Hassan Nasrallah, both of whose careers were built on contempt for the traditional Lebanese “feudal” order.

Al-Rassy was equally withering when speaking of the former prime minister, Saad Hariri. And here, once you cut through the myriad cheap shots, she was rather more lucid. Al-Rassy noted that the threats to Hariri’s life notwithstanding, if one wanted to be a politician in Lebanon, there was no room for fear; one had to be physically present in the country, “not in Paris or Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Rassy, whatever her political leanings, did not say anything that has not been said quietly by countless other politicians, many allied with Hariri. Her criticism seemed less a matter of antagonism than an objective assessment by the daughter of a political family of how leadership is exercised. Hariri once had so much power, you could almost hear al-Rassy lament, how could he wantonly throw it all away? 

The interview also told us a great deal about the mediocre nature of political conversation in Lebanon. Facts are shaky, interpretation is based on a tendentious reading of the shaky facts, and personal experience is somehow elevated to the level of cosmic truth.

We learned, for instance, that Lebanon’s war “ended 40 years ago” when al-Rassy blamed Bassil for failing to supply electricity after all this time. If the war concluded four decades ago, that would mean it was over before it officially started in April 1975, which would have been ideal had it only been true.

We discover that Rafiq Hariri “was killed from above, mammy” (“mammy” being one of the words of endearment al-Rassy tosses at the interviewer), which would indicate he was the victim of an Israeli or American drone attack. It’s odd that a United Nations investigation never found any evidence of this, though al-Rassy would say this only confirmed the vast conspiracy put in place to accuse Hezbollah.

Al-Rassy tells us that Newsweek once reported that the Maronite was the “best combatant in the world.” I cannot guarantee that the magazine never published an article on the topic, but I would wager more money than I have that it would have never been formulated in such a way, or that “the world” would have been used as a yardstick. Hyperbole is common in Lebanon, where few people read and reality is viewed impressionistically.

It is funny how when many better-known Lebanese figures speak their mind, you just wish they wouldn’t. Out comes the bigotry, the conceit, and the transmutation of dubious facts into dead certainties. It’s all very shambolic, imprecise, and not a little disquieting. Sonya al-Rassy doubtless has her admirers, but I imagine that quite a few more Lebanese watched her interview with sheer incredulity.

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