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Precarity and Mutual Aid in Lebanon and Iraq

Panel XI-27, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • How does the view from the Global South and the Arab world shape our understanding of precarity and precarious work? How do those who live precarious lives shape the social justice agenda and emancipatory struggles? The main objective of this paper is to offer analytical precision to the concept of precarity and precarious work rooted in the epistemology of the global south and the Arab world in particular. I argue that "precarious work" and the precariat have become catch-all concepts lacking theoretical strength and analytical precision. While referring to the erosion of stable work in the post-Fordist era, the conceptualization of "precarious work" is tied to Western-centric approaches (see Guy Standing 2011). I propose instead a critical political economy approach from the Global South. Combining theoretical insights from the literature on informality, marginality, exclusion, and disposability, archival research, secondary literature, and preliminary fieldwork conducted in Northern Lebanon's poorest city, Tripoli, I argue that those who live precarious lives have not simply lost an occupational identity and an occupational narrative. Rather, I account for how they are exposed to violent and lethal processes under neoliberal and non-democratic regimes, as is the case for Lebanon's neoliberal sectarianism. Such violence and lethality enacted against precarious bodies is exposed amid one of the worst financial crises and a global pandemic that made it clear that such precarious bodies are discardable and disposable. I also move away from depicting precarious workers as "dangerous." Such depictions further contribute to their criminalization. Instead, I seek to account for their anger and resistance under neoliberal sectarianism as a dignifying mechanism that seeks to redeem their human dignity amidst political, social, and economic processes that dehumanize them. In doing so, I draw attention to how precarious workers in the informal economy (such as fishermen, street vendors, etc.) and the urban poor in Tripoli resisted the violence and lethality of neoliberal sectarianism during and in the aftermath of the 2019 uprising.
  • The financial and political crisis in Lebanon has changed the lives of vulnerable communities. People’s daily survival needs have ushered in a mishmash of strategies of survival that are reshaping the role of local actors in political and social life. This research project aims to investigate the means through which some of Lebanon’s most vulnerable communities access basic public goods and services to weather a compounded crisis. Using a qualitative ethnographic approach, I take the shantytown of Wadi Al Nahle and Al-Mankoubin in the northern city of Tripoli as my sites of research. These shantytowns are considered to be “slums-within-a-slum.” They lie at the center of a triangle of abject poverty that connects the city of Tripoli to its northern suburbs. In my work, I look at how nascent community-based initiatives and community members interact with dominant tribal and clientelist networks in their own locales to secure goods and services. My research focus is two-fold: (1) to unpack informal channels of welfare and service provision in these areas that have compensated for the welfare vacuum in governmental institutions; and (2) to unpack local ties of survival, and community groupings attending to people’s basic needs. This project asks: How are vulnerable communities responding to the crisis in Lebanon? How are the local efforts of community-based structures in northern Lebanon’s slum districts delimited by, or else dependent, on informal and politicized networks of aid provision? Studying both clientelist and solidaristic ties of survival is key to understanding how indirect and informal networks of aid are defining a politics of survival in unsettled times. As part of my field research, I have secured my participation in the work of two community-based initiatives within my sites of research, as well as limited access to the work of political brokers. These actors are imbricated within clientelist-patronage networks and engage in social and charity work. As part of my ethnographic methodology, I immerse myself in the daily lives of participants to better understand their challenges as well as the complex relational dynamics that facilitate or delimit their work.
  • Water is not only life; it represents power, connection, and possibility. Through its distribution, water becomes a substance that mediates relations between subjects of government and those in authority. Yet it also remains porous and exceeds efforts of control. Lebanon is the most water-rich country in the Middle East. It also holds the most refugees per capita out of any country in the world. The excesses of water and human populations in Lebanon converge most clearly in humanitarianism and the protracted efforts of servicing displaced Syrians. The majority of Syrians in Lebanon live in informal tent settlements (ITS)—decidedly impermanent camp settings, as demanded by Lebanese regulations, which are governed by a range of NGOs. The protracted impermanence of Syrian life has created problems for the humanitarian provision of water. Prevented from connecting to formal municipal water networks, Syrians living in ITS rely on water trucking, which refill household domestic water tanks roughly twice weekly. Through trucking, water becomes a substance suspended in its movement, delivered to a population suspended in displacement. But from the well, to the truck, to the tank, water flows to stagnation. The fears of stagnant water—and the uncertain and unsettling life it could produce—echo the nationalist’s paranoia of a stagnant refugee population. The mimetic movement and settlement of water and human populations invites an Anthropological exploration of ecology, mobility, and assistance. Through 12 months of ethnographic research of water distribution efforts in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, this paper discusses the contradictions and possibilities of water trucking among both providers and beneficiaries of assistance. Far from a singular substance fulfilling a universal humanitarian need, water here takes many forms and possesses a range of meanings depending on its infrastructure of distribution, concerns of purity, and fears of insufficiency. Water and refugee life become entangled in ways that paradoxically resist governmental efforts to segregate displaced people from formal citizen populations.
  • "I am the wheat”, I am told by one of my interlocutors in Beirut, Lebanon as our discussion encompasses an eventual return to land in death amidst the violence in the region. The reference to ‘becoming’ the wheat is not just about the material conditions of the cycle of life and death and the challenges that may prevent this return to soil, but rather, also about how our way of being is understood and embodied. Amidst the financial and economic collapse that Lebanon is going through, waves of mass emigration is underway. However, I look at those who stay behind and how they theorize this conviction of staying through the practices that build and sustain a relationship to land, whether that may be traditional agricultural practices, burial rituals, or other sorts of affective means that bring into focus a political imaginary that invokes an alternative way of being and eventual hopeful future. My interlocutors are theorists themselves who produce and embody theories of survival, sumud (Steadfastness), and attachment to land through the political and ethical claims that they make. How, then, can those who stay create and embody a politics capable of envisioning futures and invoking hope through land when in situations of crises in Lebanon and the region? How do people, not just survive, but actively form alternative presents and futures? The ethical and political claims that people who remain behind make then can be viewed as a site in which the self, the communal, and the cosmic is understood and lived through, perhaps diverged from a hegemonic understanding. I look into the theories and practices that are evoked by those who stay behind through which a political imaginary can be formed and maintained in order to envision an alternative future and a radical detachment from coloniality. My methodology involves ethnographic work in two major sites: 1) the agricultural: grassroots organization that engage with traditional knowledge training in South of Lebanon as well as farmers and others who engage in these practices on an individual basis; 2) burial rites: exploring the Lebanese diaspora’s wish to return in death and to be ‘home’ and in ‘one’s land’ and the materialities involved in the practice of return and staying in the land after death, while also looking at how those who stay engage with death as a temporal practice and connection to land and belonging.
  • While scholarly studies of Iraq tend to focus on its conflict-ridden political machinations, institutional weakness, and engrained sectarianism, they are less attentive to the ways in which notions of generosity, care, and the virtues of hosting govern how Iraqis relate to and live with one another. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Iraq from 2021-2023 and informed by fifteen years of kindness received across the author's life in the region, this paper examines how Iraqis cultivate the virtues of karam and gheira, concepts which encapsulate forms of non-transactional generosity, sacrifice, and giving. It further argues that these concepts can function as a challenge to, and negotiation with, political violence and should be central to how we understand the contested politics of belonging in the country. The complex practices associated with karam and gheira encompass broad forms of social care and mutual aid that could include hosting a visiting friend, offering support to a stranger in need, or other forms of giving. These values are often framed by Iraqis as fundamental and critical components of functional, meaningful, and ethical life amidst complex social and cultural diversity amongst the brutalizing effects of war, authoritarianism, and structural and social breakdown. While both notions, karam and gheira, govern relationships between intimates, families, and friends, they also, crucially, can inform a person's sense of responsibility to the needs of strangers, and are often invoked by Iraqis when they argue for the importance of non- and anti-sectarian visions of politics. As important is that these forms of giving are explicitly framed by Iraqis as non-transactional, a claim difficult to account for through the idiom of reciprocity that commonly frames 'tribal' or 'political' structure in Maussian inspired scholarship on the Middle East, as elsewhere.