Compiled and narrated by Shahd Hammouri
غالباً ح موت قبل ما شوفها بلاد حرة
بدك ياني ابني حبسي بايدي اه؟
بدك خطوات مانها مفيدة اه؟
بدك حتى بجنوني اخدمك أهدافك
حتى كوابيسي تعمر أحلامك
بفضل موت مجنون
بفضل عيش مجنون
سنين وانا عم هذب هلوساتي
الراس، هلوساتي –
Most likely we will die before we see it as a free nation
You want me to build my own prison with my own hands?
Through a bunch of useless steps?
You want me to serve you, even in my madness?
So that my nightmares can build your dreams?
I would rather live mad
I would rather die mad
I have been taming my hallucinations for years
– El Rass, Hallucinations
The term system crash is employed here to describe what manifests at the point where one realises the contradictions arising from the gap between what international law claims to be (and is consequently represented as) and the reality which it claims to regulate. The starting point of these contradictions is when international law places its legitimacy on an underlying claim of equity, while its reality serves to uphold the world order exactly as it is – ultimately finding virtue in power. The effects of this system crash are most often felt by the subaltern subjects at the weaker end of the international arena, i.e. subjects of states of the global South. For example, a system crash occurs when the excessive exploitation of resources in a Third World state by a foreign corporation is justified with reference to dire positivist readings of international law. Since the function of international law here is safeguarding corporate profit, and the legitimacy of the foreign body is explained in terms of equity, the effects of this system crash are felt by the subaltern subjects of the given state and the realisation of the system crash becomes a shared sentiment. Another example unfolds when the application of international law privileges the statements of diplomats or lawyers from 1945 over and above the lived realities of social inequality and armed conflict today.
A system crash reverberated in Macron’s visit to Beirut following the explosions allegedly prompted by multifaceted negligence, destroying half of the city once again and physically harming thousands. The system crash here is exemplified as follows: a representative of a former colonial ruler, who is in support of both the elitist classes of Lebanon and the international financial institutions whose conditions have crippled the Lebanese economy for years, walks in the street of a city in turmoil to bestow acts of charity in the middle of an angry crowd screaming ‘Revolution’. Representation: humanist state cooperation. Reality: securing the dependence of the Lebanese state on an economically advanced state.
The subaltern subject in the states of the global South is hit by the load of irrationalities prompted by the system crash to justify her suffering. For example: when Iraqis hear about the creative argument of pre-emptive self-defence to justify the invasion of their country with utter impunity; or Palestinians who hear that occupation is itself a perfectly legal act and we are not even sure if prolonged occupation (of, say, more than 50 years) is wrong, and keeping up a liberal understanding of free trade is more important than state responsibility not to recognize the illegality of Israeli settlements.
انا مو بو انا كل التروما بتحكي بصوتي
يمسحنا عضهر الكوكب و ما نكمل هالليله
فاز الخير بكل أفلامهم
و بقصتنا انتصر الباطل
باعت كل قوانين العدل
بو كلثوم، النيزك –
I am not Bo
I am the trauma speaking in the voice of Bo,
Bring forth the meteorite
Call the meteorite
So that it can wipe us from the surface of the planet, and we do not see this night
The good always wins in their movies
while the bad always prevails in our story
All just laws have been sold
Bring forth the meteorite
Call the meteorite
– Bo Kalthoum, The Meteorite
One’s reaction to a system crash is often categorised within spaces of madness: we do not even have adequate vocabulary to describe how horrifying this system crash is, and are often deemed emotional for attempting to explain things outside the liberal cage of rationality. In Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, he demonstrates how the category of madness is socially structured to act as a tool of repression, giving us an important lesson: one ought not dismiss ideas and approaches that others, especially the international community, might deem ‘Mad’. On the contrary, such madness might be the clue that we need to initiate a discussion with the subalterns of the international community – a discussion that asks international law to rise to the virtues it claims as the basis of its legitimacy, if it is to remain an accepted basis of international governance.
Madness in this case appears as the effect of the system crash. And as this realisation lacks vocabulary, music can be an outlet where such madness is expressed. Accordingly, to explore the manifestations of different system crashes I will give a musical narrative. My geographical focus will be on the area I am most familiar with, and which has been a ripe place for the proliferation of system crashes: the Levant region of Western Asia. Another reason for this focus is the richness of the musical scene since the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. So my contribution here features some of the most prominent artists who have aided a whole generation of Arabs in expressing how a system crash is felt by the subaltern subjects of international law. It is important to note that all translations in this post are my own; most of these translations are very context specific, and I have attempted to place them within the adequate context to the best of my capabilities.
فتحلي دفتر سايكس- بيكو ل نعيد التقسيم
الطفار، تحت رحمة المدفعية –
Open up the Skyes-Picot agreement, lets reconfigure the split
– Al-Taffar, Under the Mercy of the Canon
The original system crash reverberating in the Levant, or ‘el sham’ as we know it, occurred when the area was split up by Britain and France in 1916 into the nation states we see today, in a then-secret bilateral agreement to share control over the Levant, the Sykes–Picot Agreement. This split of war-bounty was in contradiction to what the British government had promised Al-Sherif Al-Hussein who had supported the efforts to get rid of the Ottoman Empire, and who purportedly only knew about the agreement to split the area and colonise it after he had encouraged efforts to rebel against Ottoman control, eventually paving the way for colonisation that was carried over into the Mandate system. Representation: Mandate system to help states get on their feet (an argument used as proper justification to colonise barbarians by Vitoria). Reality: practice of colonial sense of entitlement, economic exploitation, introduction of a European model of nation state causing an identity crisis resulting in endless bloodshed, and attempts to override local culture. System crash.
Music in the Levant prior to 2011 was categorised by a certain level of idealism, as most songs were concerned with keeping up a level of hope that representations will fulfil their claim. Also, given the repression of the right to freedom of speech in most states in the region, there was little space for the expression of things close to categories of madness.
أنا عايزة العالم كله يمد كفوفه بسلام،
والسلم العربي يكون، سلام مش استسلام
لطيفة، الضمير العربي –
I want the whole world to open up their palms in a gesture of peace,
and for peace in the Arab world to be a treaty of peace not surrender
– Latifa, The Arab Consciousness
‘The Arab Consciousness’ is a long Operetta with musicians representing all states in the Arab League, fundamentally singing about how miserable things have been since the start of the 20th century. This song had followed up ten years after the production of ‘The Arabic Dream’, in which the main verse goes like:
دا حلمنا طول عمرنا، حضن يضمنا كلنا كلنا.
والليل لو صار طويل اكيد من بعده صباح
الحلم العربي –
Our collective dream, all this time, has been:
one refuge to hold us all in.
And while the darkness of the night might last long,
the morning has to come
– The Arabic Dream
The song continues to express reactions to multiple historical system crashes: the 1948 Nakba when Palestine was treated as a terra nullus by the international community (in accordance with the unilateral Balfour declaration on behalf of Britain); sect wars in Lebanon that can be traced back to colonising divides; international financial institution intervention and reform programs that have pursued a certain neoliberal economic agenda, serving foreign capital rather than the local population; and deeply rooted tyranny and corruption in ruling classes aligned with former colonialists that have similarly decimated working and middle classes across the region.
في شي لإلنا بهل شوارع لازم ناخده
في شي لإلنا غير الخوف، غير الوعود
الراس، أشهد –
There is something in the streets that is ours, and we have to take it – there is something more than fear and more than promises
– El Rass, I Witness
[The lyrics of this song were echoing among anti-Assad rebels in Homs, Syria in the year 2012]
تونس، إنتصار ثورة على الميراث
برونو كروز ومحمود جرير وولاء سبيت وتيريز سليمات، ثورة خضرة –
Tunis, the triumph of revolution over tradition
– Bruno Cruiz, Mahmoud Jrere, Walaa Sbeit, Terez Sliman & Toot Ard, Green Revolution
إلهي، وقف دوران العالم،
مش قادرة أتحمل
تامر نفار، مروان مخلوف، تيريز سليمان، إله الثورة –
Dear lord, can you stop the earth from spinning?
I cannot take it anymore,
I feel dizzy and I want it to stop
– Tamer Nafar, Marwan Makhoul & Terez Sliman, God of Revolution
(video includes English subtitles)
In 2011, a wave of regime contestations which had started in North Africa had reached the Levant – led by the generation who had lived in constant turmoil, alongside an unprecedented awareness of that turmoil prompted by the rise of televised news. This wave had been directed internally, filled with an understanding of revolution as indoctrinated in principles of the people’s right to self-determination. In the interim, the wave had an implicit false hope that the international community would rise up to its claims. After all, many of the corrupt regime leaders were endorsed by economically advanced states, and the stench of the residue of colonialism was everywhere. However, the result was that once again the area was an open field for the competing interests of economically advanced states, and exploitation by local elite classes. This resulted in an internationalised war in Syria where any so-called duty to protect was thrown under the rug; two wars against Gaza and more Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank while international lawyers tip-toed around the issues as the indeterminacies of international law were used to normalise the status quo; the emergence of ISIS fighting in pursuit of 17th century rhetoric; the complete shut-down of the economy in Lebanon; the rise of a security state in Jordan; the re-instatement of a dictatorship in Egypt; and the liberalisation of the Iraqi economy by a departing occupying power opening the door to full-on exploitation. Representation: the right to self-determination is inalienable, and states have the duty to protect. Reality: the right to self-determination is not afforded to the subaltern subject unless that plays in the interest of economically advanced states. System crash.
باقتصاد الرغبة نحن ازمة مش محسوبة بلحظة مش مدروسة
الراي العام بيبصبص فبنرتجل ردم الفجوة
الراس، تما يقولوا عنّا –
In the economy of desire, we are the crisis unaccounted for,
in a moment that was not well thought of,
And as the public opinion looks over, we will improvise a quick cover up
– El Rass, So They Will Not Say That About Us
After a few years it was clear that the emancipatory impulses of the subaltern subjects were overweighed by the international community, and the act of genuine revolution was disbanded – maimed, and ridiculed. Little by little, the spirit of revolution turned into a sense of deep cynicism.
فتش الشنتة يا ابن الكلبة
من الوطن تركتلونا كنزةعليها شعار
تامر نفار، فتش الشنتة –
Go ahead and inspect my bag,
Seeing that, all that we have left of our nation
is a sweater with a logo,
and a few socks
– Tamer Naffar, Inspect My Bag
بنحكيش أسماء عالعامة
بنتاك إزا حدا فيكو صور
تلفوني بضل ضل ضل، تررت ترن
شب الجديد، من رام الله إلى القدس وبالعكس –
Do not say any names if asked,
We are fucked if someone takes a picture
My phone does not stop ringing
– Shab Jdeed, From Ramallah to Jerusalem and Back
[with a well-directed video on facial recognition]
Interestingly, the post-2011 era was also accompanied by the major expansion of the surveillance industry, legitimised under the claim of ‘security’, and sold under the veil of neutral economic activity by corporations in advanced economies. Such surveillance effectively harnessed any madness that might appear in reaction to the system crash.
كيف إرهابي وأنا عايش ببلادي؟
اتجه للقانون؟ عالفاضي مانت يا عدو
بتلعب دور الشاهد المحامي والقاضي
دام، مين إرهابي –
Who is a terrorist?
I am a terrorist?
How can I be a terrorist when I am living in my state?
Go to the law? Why?
the enemy is playing the role of the witness, lawyer and judge.
– DAM, Who is a Terrorist?
(video includes English subtitles)
Meanwhile, the indeterminate category of ‘terrorism’ was harnessed by different powers to delegitimise the other and blur claims to the right to self-determination. Civil movement protesters in Syria were labelled as ‘terrorists’. Palestinians pursuing the right to self-determination against an occupying state are labelled as ‘terrorists’. This semiotic reconfiguration is certainly a dangerous tool that sustains the status quo. System crash.
وبعد دا كله، لسا المذيع له وش؟
الشعب يريد تطهير الإعلام
ياسر مهاولي، أقلية مندسة –
After all of this, the news presenter still has dignity?
The people want to purify the media
– Yaser Mahawli, The Minority of Infiltrators
In the interim, the proliferation of representations of the good will of local governments and the international community in the local and international media reaches a point of absurdity.
(video includes English subtitles. This song is a tribute to Basel Al Araj who was a Palestinian organic intellectual and activist murdered by the Israeli army who, in turn, had relied on data provided by the notoriously corrupt Palestinian Authority to find him.)
بيخاطبونا من منابر الديموقراطية.. بيموتوا بالفيتو
الراس والدرويش والأصلي، زمن المسخ –
They speak to us from the platforms of democracy
While loving the power of the Veto
– El Rass, El Darwich & Al Asli, Deformed times
[Video includes English subtitles. The song song references Donald Trump’s so called ‘peace plan’ for Palestine, which suggests normalising effective annexation of the West Bank in return for billions of dollars for Palestinian authorities financed by the Gulf regimes.]
At this point the subaltern subject is left powerless in front of the system crash, surveillance, corrupt governments, jail, and media misrepresentation – deepening cynicism. Meanwhile, there is often very little international representation of the subaltern subject. Those attending international spaces of discussion often have no connection whatsoever with the subaltern subject. The formalistic model of ‘democracy’, with all of its inherent flaws, is not even within the subaltern’s reach to claim. As a result, the destiny of the subaltern subject is often decided by the will and ‘mediation’ of powerful states. Representation: the state represents its people. Reality: the state represents the interest of capital. System crash.
أنا راضي على ترحالي، هني وراضي
قبل رمي الملامه إيدك عجروحي
و عديلي كم اللوم بين بضلوعي
علقت يا يامو بين تنين يا بنفيني
يا بنكر ليش أو من وين إجا سكيني
بو كلثوم، ترحال –
I am content with my forceful exile … content
before placing blame on me, put your hands on my wounds
And count how much blame rests between my ribs
Mother, I was between two options: voluntary exile
or I deny why and from where my knife came from
– Bo Kalthoum, Terhal
The status quo, as maintained by powerful states, leads the thinkers contesting the status quo to seek refuge in powerful states. Ironic. Such powerful states accept those exiled selectively, often choosing those from educated backgrounds, or otherwise placing those from uneducated backgrounds as cheap labour. Bo Kalthoum, who is Syrian, was pressured to leave Lebanon where he had sought refuge, eventually claiming asylum in Europe. The work of Bo Kalthoum expresses the rupture felt at forceful exile. His song Jowana asks those who left to hold on to the Levant, as many are traumatised into forgetfulness, while Bo’Bo’ deals with how the Arab is othered in European community – Bo’Bo’ literally meaning the monster. Another of his songs, Liel, celebrates solidarity among young Arabs in forceful exile.
بو كلتوم راح، والعقول بح ف قولي يا ولد، مين يكنس البلد؟
دام، ميلياردات –
Bo Kalthoum Left,
The thinkers are gone,
So please tell me,
Who will clean this place?
– DAM, Milliardat
بدك تعرف وين بيتي؟
بيتي نوع خيمة.
اللي متلي ما اله بيت
اله رفقة واهل وذكريات
إذا عم بتبيع نسيان هات
اللي متلي خلق بمدينة محتلة
اغترب بمدينة محتلة
رجع عمدينة محتلة، لأ مش لغوية العلّة
الراس والدرويش، بيت بيوت –
You want to know what kind of house I live in?
My house is a kind of a tent,
Those like me have no house,
Only friends, a family and memories,
If you are selling forgetfulness, give me.
Someone like me was born in an occupied city,
Lived abroad in an occupied city,
And went back to an occupied city,
No, this is not an issue of semantics,
The issue here is the occupier.
– El Rass & Al Darwish, Bait Byot
The war in Syria led to the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. The war against Palestine has fostered three different generations of refugees who are estimated at 7.2 million subaltern subjects. While raised under a host of humanist claims, the policies of powerful states to deter any form of immigration are in absolute contradiction to their claims. As Levantines have become experts of international refugee law, their status has proved that the current legal system, in reality, places the refugee in ‘a bit less human’ category. System crash.
In the meantime, international NGOs coming to disperse humanitarian aid are funded by the same governments who take positions in international arenas that weaken any mechanisms aimed at challenging the structures that produce subaltern suffering. By way of blunt example: the efforts of the United States to continuously weaken and sideline the Arms Trade Treaty; the systematic banishment of transformative instruments demanded by southern states into the marginal space of ‘soft’ law, as observed by Chimni. A system crash resulting from the dark sides of humanist virtue.
[This song, with a well-directed video, is a tribute to Ali Sh’ieb who was the leader of a robbery of the Bank of America in 1973. The robbery was politically motivated as he shared the money stolen, Robin Hood style.]
هيلا هيلا هيلا هوب
بدنا نشحد من باريس
أموالنا المسروقة، المنهوبة بحسابات سرية
طول ما الإنسان رخيص بدي سقط كل رئيس
الراس، إلنار –
It is an issue of class
and the solution is societal
Hela hela hela hop
With humiliation and robbery
We have been begging Paris
For our stolen money, hidden in secret accounts
As long as the human is cheap
I want to overthrow every president
Hela hela hela ho
– El Rass, Al Nar
[This song was released in the context of the riots which started in October 2019 in Lebanon.]
More recently, those speaking out in the Levant have been shifting towards themes of anarchy – dismissing symbols representing the international economic system and the intervention of economically advanced states, as well as local elites. Recent riots in Beirut featured critical positions on the IMF, foreign intervention and the elite class. The same is observed in Amman, where protests contesting the repression of the teacher’s syndicate took on a rhetoric that challenges class divides. The syndicate was portrayed as a representative of the working class, acquiring the title of “the syndicate of the people” – a new inference that suggests a move towards a more informed struggle, more aware of the complexities of class divides in post-colonial states.
هيدي عنواين أخبار؟
ولا عناوين أفلام؟
شو بعد عندك جييب هات
الراس، هات –
The destruction of Yemen
The rise of the right
Are these the headlines for current news,
or titles of films?
Ok, give me
Hit me with whatever you have got left
– El Rass, Het
El Rass takes a step back to read the headlines of news relevant to the Levant – his point of view is similar to that of a person standing at the shoulders of Winston Smith from George Orwell’s dystopia of 1984, as he configures old news to fit the current narrative of the government. His position is at the receiving end of the system crash, aware of the contradictions in representations, and amazed at absurdity of it.
His words convey a common message from the perspective of the subaltern subject: no system crash is surprising anymore, and this in turn justifies her cynicism towards the claims of good intentions conveyed by the community working in international law. What has been normalised is the nightmarish moment when no words exist to express the effects of such deep contradiction, except in spaces of madness.