What Do You See?

While in Amman last week, I sat on the porch of a friend’s on Friday for brunch. The first day of the weekend, unusually nice weather for August, French press coffee, home baked sour dough pita bread, omelet, foul and hummus, olives, the company of close friends, and all the time in the world to gab about everything and nothing.

Our thoughts traveled everywhere, our words with them. The wild Arabic music scene, because her wonderful son is a producer. Noise pollution in the middle of the night by rinky-dink summer clubs trying to draw customers, because my friends suffered from it for months on end. Kafkaesque encounters in labyrinthine bureaucracies, because we all have enjoyed them. The strategies of our parents in the 1950s and ‘60s, their ennui in the 1970s, the smallness of us in yesteryears and the audacity of our expectations; the sheer size of us now and the timidity of our dreams.


Like that, the conversation strolled at leisure in and out of this Arab life, anecdotes that hint at trends, trends that tell of shifts, shifts that threaten worse or bode better; the way we live,  culture and its suggestions, economics and its dichotomies, politics here, far, and near. 

And then my friend asked me that most forbidding of questions, “What do you see?”  

First came the silence, as if a minute of respect for the known that we are desperate to escape and the unknown that we are in mortal fear of experiencing. I began with an analysis that had so many caveats hanging from it, it felt like a Christmas tree overwhelmed by confetti. We were three on one side of the table. Thankfully, a remark was heard from the other side that brought all six of us together again and promptly took us to yet another gabfest.

Of course, my friend’s question, panoramically, had its sure answer: I see a Fertile Crescent that looks like the desert in a sand storm. The sand will surely settle, as dust always does, and so best for us to wait and watch in humility until the air clears and we can behold again the new shape of things. Are there forebodings? More than the heart can bear to count. Is there promise? Much fainter or stronger than the mind dare imagine.

But this response–or copout, let’s face it–would have invited her famous smirk. The details, woman. The details. I have these, we all do. The problem is I can stitch them into a hundred different patterns.

Later that afternoon, well fed and all alone, I thought that perhaps her question, slightly rephrased, would have prompted a more interesting quest. A quote by Rebecca Solnit that I had recently heard in the Irish movie, The Future Tense, came to me: “In different places, different thoughts emerge.” So, I decided to relocate.

What would I like to see? is where I went. For once, I whispered to myself, say what you want even in its vaguest contours, even in bullet points.  

In Palestine, where every thought of mine starts when I think of this Levantine neighborhood, not because Palestine is the source of all our problems but because it is very possibly the source of our redemption, I imagined not one state, not two states, but some kind of confederation called Israel-Palestine. I imagined its Israeli and Palestinian citizens sharing space and rights under two umbrellas. I imagined the arrangement collaboratively designed by leading Israeli and Palestinian legal minds, humanists, and social scientists, a league of practitioners and public intellectuals. Every one or two years, with much hand holding, this Palestine-Israel crosses a milestone.     

In Lebanon, I imagined a social contract written by our own best and brightest that guides the sect out of the public arena, strengthens the state as it carefully frees it from the sectarian albatross that paralyzes it, and reorients the political economy to secure a more balanced distribution of wealth between social rungs, regions, and cities. I imagined it cleansed of the old elite, who were denied access to the state’s services and funds, denied positions in government, were investigated, then sanctioned, then deprived of assets, in Lebanon and outside, accumulated through corruption, then frozen out of politics for a minimum of fifty years.

Every year or two, also with much hand holding, we cross a milestone.

The Beirut-Damascus Railroad

I imagined a Jordan with tight links and open borders with what is now Israel-Palestine. I imagined it finally ready to invest in and rehabilitate its impoverished public education and health sectors and close the chasms that checker its hinterland…

On this path I continued until I managed to turn the area into a Benelux-like map. I even came up with a name for the “union”: SLIPJI, for Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. Don’t pan it. Its population would approach 100 million, the majority of them wonderfully young. Its wealth would be considerable, its markets would be wide open to its industries and goods, and its historical sites and geography would be the oldest and loveliest on earth.

The map ready, I kept adding items to my laundry list of hopes, all based, of course, on my laundry list of grievances, until it all began to feel like I was tripping on something that someone had slipped into my coffee. But then, I reminded myself that I was starting from nothing, a point of utter collapse or near it, depending on the country: collapse of systems, of delusions, of lies, of values, of climates, of moral boundaries, of options.

And the thing is, nothing in what I was imagining was remotely original, even if now it’s not remotely possible. On the far margins of dead ends everywhere, many of us have long been evolving solutions to our daunting problems.   

It is the time for the unimaginable, I patted myself on the back, because the unimaginable has in fact happened.


On Another Note

Soon, courtesy of Apple TV+, we will get to watch Joaquin Phoenix offer the latest interpretation of Napoleon Bonaparte. While browsing the archive of the New York Review of Books, I came upon a 1964 review of Felix Markham’s biography of Napoleon and this magnificent drawing of the emperor by Davide Levine. I thought, oh, my God, Joaquin Phoenix! 

Here’s an excerpt from the review to prepare you for the movie:

Napoleon was one of the world’s greatest opportunists who passed up his greatest opportunity: in the years of his Consulate, he might have kept Europe at peace, and reorganized France without stifling its inner vitality and discarding half the gains of the Revolution. To do that, of course, he would have had to curb his ego, to moderate his ambitions. But then he would not have been Napoleon.

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