Homeland

(FINDING MY WAY FROM LEBANON TO HONDURAS AND NOT GETTING KILLED IN THE PROCESS)


BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ

“The peripatetic is political. For more than a decade, Belén Fernández’s dispatches from her self-imposed exile from the United States have charted the global sequela of U.S. post- 9/11 economic and military interventionism, its structural causes and traumatic effects, in countries such as Honduras, Turkey, and Iraq. Now, as the imperial core itself decomposes, Fernández’s fascinating memoir, Homeland, is a must-read how-to guide for surviving on the periphery.” —Greg Grandin, author of Fordlândia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City and The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

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About the Book

Che Guevara left Argentina at 22. At 21, Belén Fernández left the U.S. and didn’t look back. Alone, far off the beaten path in places like Syria and Tajikstan, she reflects on what it means to be an American in a largely American-made mess of a world.

After growing up in Washington, D.C. and Texas, and then attending Columbia University in New York, Belén Fernández ended up in a state of self-imposed exile from the United States. From trekking—through Europe, the Middle East, Morocco, and Latin America—to packing avocados in southern Spain, to close encounters with a variety of unpredictable men, to witnessing the violent aftermath of the 2009 coup in Honduras, the international travel allowed her by an American passport has, ironically, given her a direct view of the devastating consequences of U.S. machinations worldwide. For some years Fernández survived thanks to the generosity of strangers who picked her up hitchhiking, fed her, and offered accommodations; then she discovered people would pay her for her powerful, unfiltered journalism, enabling—as of the present moment—continued survival.

In just a few short years of publishing her observations on world politics and writing from places as varied as Lebanon, Italy, Uzbekistan, Syria, Mexico, Turkey, Honduras, and Iran, Belén Fernández has established herself as a one of the most trenchant observers of America’s interventions around the world, following in the footsteps of great foreign correspondents such as Martha Gellhorn and Susan Sontag.

Illustrated with black-and-white photos • 208 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-185-9 • E-book 978-1-68219-189-7

About the Author

Belén Fernández author photo

Photo courtesy the author

Belén Fernández, a contributing editor at Jacobin, graduated from Columbia with a BA in political science. She frequently writes for Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, and Jacobin, and is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso).

Read an Excerpt

The entrance to the bay of Beirut is magnificent… The town, beautifully situated on a slight eminence, occupies a considerable part of the [south] side of this bay. Beyond the narrow plain of the coast the mountains rise rapidly, and beyond them rises the broad, snow-clad Jebel Sannin… The rosy tint of the mountains contrasting with the deep blue of the sea presents a most picturesque scene by evening light.

This introduction to Beirut appeared in the 1876 Baedeker guide Palestine and Syria: Handbook for Travellers—which if nothing else should be of interest to contemporary inhabitants of the world who claim there was never any such thing as Palestine. The guide, excerpted in A Beirut Anthology: Travel Writing Through the Centuries (2015), went on to recommend the cafés near the Beirut customs house as offering the “best opportunity for observing the habits of the native population.”

The anthology showcases some other observations by guests in Ottoman Syria, under which territorial category Lebanon then fell. Take the Frenchman Gérard de Nerval, whose discoveries about natives in nineteenth-century Beirut included that the head ornaments of Druze and Maronite women made them “look like the fabulous unicorns which support the royal arms of England.” An excerpted note by one Gabriel Charmes in 1878 documented a “picturesque Arab” who looked on as Charmes & Co. passed en route from Sidon to Beirut, the landscape growing “steadily more beautiful, and more representative of our preconceived notion of the East than any other.” The colors were “more vivid even than the dreams we have while sitting in our European mists,” while the whole glorious scene “could have been a corner of Phoenicia, in antiquity.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Edward Said chose to begin his seminal Orientalism (1978) with a story about a French journalist who, visiting Beirut at the start of the Lebanese civil war in the mid-1970s, “wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to… the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval.” Indeed, remarked Said, “the Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes”—all of which ultimately contributed to a relationship between Occident and Orient characterized by power, domination, and “varying degrees of a complex hegemony.”

Americans, too, quickly mastered Orientalist methods of exoticization, dehumanization, and disempowerment, as well as other handy tricks for facilitating imperial conquest; after all, in strategically valuable areas of the globe, one can’t be burdened with natives who fancy themselves in control of their own destinies. Nor did the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 put a damper on the exotic element. Thomas Friedman, who served as Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times in the early 1980s and subsequently penned the bestselling From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989), marveled at the manner in which invading Israeli soldiers were thrown for a loop by “the buxom, Cleopatra-eyed Lebanese girls in designer bikinis that left little to the imagination.” In case there was any doubt: “This was not the Sinai, filled with cross-eyed Bedouins and shoeless Egyptian soldiers.” Appropriately, Said himself took Friedman to task that same year for “the comic philistinism of [his] ideas,” his embrace of “the purest Orientalism,” and his peddling of “moronic and hopelessly false dictum[s].”

Nowadays, Beirut has again become something of a darling of the international travel scene, aided by innumerable articles detailing all of the ways to spend money in Lebanon’s oh-so-glamorous capital. These reports generally also include at least one of the following components:

  1. a reference to Beirut as the former “Paris of the Middle East.”
  2. a reference to Beirut as a “phoenix rising from the ashes.”
  3. a bout of neo-Orientalist wonder at the mind-blowing juxtaposition of hijabs and mini-skirts, or Hezbollah and billboard lingerie ads.
  4. an invented anthropological factoid, ranging from The New York Times’ determination that, despite Beirut’s many faiths, “at least one religion is universally practiced: sun worship”—particularly at high-end beach clubs where “hordes of heliophiles… cultivate their bronzed exteriors”—to Vogue Magazine’s revelation that Beirut is now “affectionately referred to as ‘Bey.’

Never mind that no one has ever said “Bey” outside a discussion of the city’s airport code, or that bronzed exterior cultivation isn’t exactly compatible with many Lebanese religious persuasions—not to mention the financial obstacles to high-end existence in a country in which the poverty rate in certain areas approaches 65 percent.

Similarly enlightening is the Times dispatch on the phenomenon of “women with Louis Vuitton handbags… forever extracting their spike heels from the cracks” in the boardwalk at Zaitunay Bay, Beirut’s “luxury playground.” (Granted, the paper does less damage writing about spike heels than engaging in other activities for which it has been known, e.g. regurgitating Israeli propaganda and preemptively exonerating the IDF for bombing Lebanon to smithereens in any future conflict.) Ditto for VICE’s predictable contribution to the study of Lebanese culture, “Fighting for the Right to Party in Beirut,” in which we learn about a revolutionary arrangement whereby “bars offer coke-fueled benders down the street from Hezbollah headquarters.”

Of course, the glorification of elite excess is nothing new in a global panorama in which shameless and all-encompassing materialism directly serves the interests of the powers that be. And it is in this context that we must view the encouragement and applause for Arab populations sufficiently trained in Western-style decadence so as not to pose too much of a threat to the world order. In the case of Lebanon in particular, gleeful Orientalist convulsions over the Beirut “renaissance” and the idea that the Lebanese are so much “like us” effectively invalidates and delegitimizes the aspirations of those in Lebanon with potentially more pressing objectives than coke-fueled benders—like, say, the right to not be occupied and killed by Israel. Naturally, anyone putting up resistance to US-Israeli designs in the region is potentially guilty of sabotaging Lebanon’s Paris of the Middle East identity in favor of the alternative Terrorist Hotbed one.

Among the many eligible saboteurs, perhaps, is a Palestinian-Lebanese man called Hassan whom I once happened to marry as part of a heavily wine-fueled scheme to procure for him a US passport, with which document he might travel to Israel to see his late father’s Palestinian family members in a village near Nazareth. Said father had fled his birthplace as a child in 1948 when the state of Israel undertook to erect itself on Palestinian land, eliminating more than 400 villages, killing some 10,000 Palestinians, and expelling three-quarters of a million more. Taken in by a south Lebanese family, he later married Hassan’s mother, a Lebanese Shia from the southern village of Shehabieh; Lebanon’s identity laws being what they are, however, Hassan is permanently categorized as a Sunni Palestinian refugee, with citizenship, basic rights, job opportunities, and so forth curtailed accordingly. This despite his previous service in Lebanon’s primarily Shia Amal Movement, in which capacity he participated in the struggle to liberate Lebanese territory from Israeli occupation.

Given Israel’s unilateral criminalization of any suggestion of a Palestinian right of return, Hassan is essentially doubly deprived of a homeland, on both his mother’s and father’s sides. Back in 2008, the situation got us to thinking that the least my own repudiated homeland could do in compensation for its annual multibillion-dollar donations to Israel would be to provide the passport necessary to allow Hassan to reconnect with his Palestinian past just south of the Lebanese border.

Wine-induced disregard for the numerous hurdles to such a matrimonial scheme meant that Hassan and I never made it so far as to register our union at the US embassy-fortress north of Beirut, although we did at least eventually succeed in navigating Lebanon’s sectarian bureaucracy, resulting in my inscription as wife number one on Hassan’s Palestinian identity card. Meanwhile, Hassan served as benevolent guide to picturesque scenery and native habits and, in doing his damnedest to make me feel at home in a land where he most certainly wasn’t, helped me more than I could ever help him.