Seasons of Life and War in South Lebanon: An Interview on Ecologies of Resistance
To celebrate the forthcoming publication of Munira’s Khayyat’s A Landscape of War: Ecologies of Resistance and Survival in South Lebanon (University of California Press, 2022), editor Sintia Issa met with the author on June 22, 2022 in Beirut, and asked her about the book and how ordinary southerners have resisted war and occupation since 1948.
Munira Khayyat teaches anthropology at the American University in Cairo. A Landscape of War is her first book.
The following interview was slightly edited for clarity.
How would you explain this book to a child?
I write about life and war, and how people make lives in war. I look at war as a habitable place where war is not something that happens to strange people in far-off elsewheres. I look at war, as you know, as home. So how do people live in war? What are their concerns on the day-to-day? When you live in war, your concerns aren’t only about death and dying; you’re mainly thinking about how to go on living, right? So, my book is very much about life and war, or life in war. I really want to keep these two things together.
What drove you to write this book?
It’s a book that just comes out of my life. I grew up in war, and war was kind of the natural habitat of my years growing up. From growing up, to the war sort of ending, then going out into the world, I realized that my perspective on many things was flipped. Many take war as an aberration, as the exception, an event that is counter to what we think of as ordinary life as peace because “peace” is the default, right? But for somebody like me who grew up in Lebanon during the war [that wasn’t the case]. I was born in 1976; the war had already started, and it only ended when I was 14.
I don’t want to normalize war, but I want to show how it is normalized in the ways in which many people who are unfortunate enough, I would say, to live in war, across generations, live their lives.
The first years of my life naturalized this environment. Going abroad, I would encounter a normal world that for me was anything but normal, a world that was very different from the world that I normalized. So, I also really wanted to write a story about war and how war is the sort of environment for life for many people. I don’t want to normalize war, but I want to show how it is normalized in the ways in which many people who are unfortunate enough, I would say, to live in war, across generations, live their lives.
How did you learn about life and/in war to write this book?
I researched this book in the aftermath of the 2006 July War when war had burst back into all of our lives in Lebanon. After the war, I went to South Lebanon to explore questions about life in war, but I didn’t ask questions about war, I pursued questions around life. In South Lebanon, an agricultural borderland, life springs forth from the land and war is waged on the land too. Hence, the landscape, as a frame that holds life and war together, became the portal of my inquiry into the life of war.
What do you mean by “resistant ecologies” in the subtitle of A Landscape of War?
“Resistant ecologies” is a key concept that I work with in the book. It’s one that I found has a poetic ring to it, but is also evocative of the ways in which beings who have to live in non-livable worlds find ways to live together in worlds that are not especially hospitable to life. So, for me, “resistant ecologies” is a concept that resonates with the bucolic and agricultural setting of South Lebanon, one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. It’s historical Galilee; it’s Jabal ‘Amel; it resonates with biblical imagery of the rolling hills of a fertile landscape. South Lebanon is an agricultural borderland, and there you see olive orchards, goats grazing, tobacco plants, fruit trees, little kitchen gardens, and people living together with other forms of life in a world that has been devastated by seasons of military violence since 1948.
Working in South Lebanon, I struggled to figure out a way to speak about the connections that people had not only with each other, but also with the landscape. The landscape is basically the bigger framework for the book that pulls in all the heterogeneous elements that allow life to continue in a world where life is often the target of destruction. “Resistant ecologies” speaks to these relations. The reason why I call it resistance is because there is a praxis of resistance and an ideology of resistance in South Lebanon, and they’re quite diverse. I tried to look at them as a plurality of ecologies and one can see how diverse and eclectic resistance is. Looking at ecologies has become a very interesting, humble, and feminist-inflected way to theorize where you begin with the ordinary practices that you see in life, as an ethnographer, and then you build theoretical concepts from these humble origins. So, for me, ecology really resonated with these relational modalities that people draw on, enact, and inhabit to stay alive in South Lebanon.
In the agricultural borderland that is South Lebanon, you see olive orchards, goats grazing, tobacco plants, fruit trees, little kitchen gardens, and people living together with other forms of life in a world where life is often the target of destruction. “Resistant ecologies” speaks to these relations.
Of course, it’s a concept that can extend beyond an agricultural area. I also look at human-human collaborations, collaboration across the border or under occupation, but also friendship, kinship, all kinds of allyships that strengthen life and in devastated worlds. But it’s also a concept that can extend to a place like Beirut, and Lebanon writ large, because we’re in a world that has always been more or less uninhabitable. Yet, people live voraciously here; how do they do it? At the formal level it’s really hard to grasp, but you have to look at inter-relationalities, what connects people within this space and beyond, and you realize that these are the networks that actually give life. When people ask the question all the time, “How do people continue to live in a place like Beirut?” You’re like, okay, yeah, let me show you, and often what you’re showing them is what I call resistant ecologies.
You differentiate between “resistance” and “The Resistance” as a generative way to open resistance to multiple forms and meanings, and to challenge the hegemonic monopoly on this concept and praxis. Could you talk more about these multiple and sometimes continuous forms of resistance?
This is one of the biggest questions that I often get asked about and about my commitment to resistance. I really want to parse this word in a way that is historically deep and socially relevant, and show how this word and its ideology have been monopolized by “The Resistance.” Now, I don’t see the world in black or white, for or against. I truly believe that Hezbollah in South Lebanon has a very important history that cannot be disavowed by whatever you agree or disagree with, or by Hezbollah’s larger political project. One must also recognize that Hezbollah in Lebanon didn’t come out of nowhere. Hezbollah in Lebanon also draws on a history of resistance in the region that predates Hezbollah. For instance, many who reached a high rank in the military resistance of Hezbollah were trained by Palestinians. Then there’s also a history of resistance in South Lebanon that encompasses other sects or political groups, including the communists who were very involved in the resistance. It is also true that after the Israeli invasion and occupation, which lasted in Saida until 1985 and in South Lebanon until 2000, the Islamic resistance emerged and turned into Hezbollah. Equally true is the fact that the occupation in South Lebanon was truly the place where Hezbollah perfected guerrilla warfare as an asymmetrical form of military resistance through which it drove out a crushing occupation. This is an unprecedented event we shouldn’t take away from them. It’s truly a great victory.
The way in which this plays out politically in the region is less my concern in this book. What I insist on is that resistance in South Lebanon is a relevant analytic, a relevant form of politics, and it’s also relevant to the way in which people rationalize and make sense of their lives in South Lebanon; if one is Shi’a or not, Hezbollah is an important political force. It is more than just a political organization, more than Iran, and more than a provider, but it’s also all these things too, especially that the state has been largely absent in South Lebanon since the inception of Lebanon. Hezbollah should also not be taken out of context in South Lebanon.
Resistance is a relevant analytic, a relevant form of politics, and it’s also relevant to the way in which people rationalize and make sense of their lives in South Lebanon... I really want to parse this word in a way that is historically deep and socially relevant, and show how this word and its ideology have been monopolized by “The Resistance.”
During the occupation, not everybody was against the occupation; some people were like, “okay, so Israel is here now. It sucks but what am I going to do to get on with my life?” Many just got along, like this is the power that is right now, so we’re going to go along with it. Many were also forcibly conscripted into the South Lebanon Army. Of course, there are levels of collaboration, but on the level of the ordinary person — and that’s the level that I’m looking at — in many ways, resistance is survival. It’s not always the case that resistance is survival but, in some cases, it is just surviving, which requires getting along and bracketing the larger political (and moral) questions. In looking at all these forms of resistance, there are more gray zones than one is willing to admit, especially if one is committed to an ideological understanding of what it means to resist, because there’s not one way to resist. And my take on Hezbollah’s monopoly of resistance is simply to say, it can’t monopolize resistance. Today it is “the Resistance;” it is the military resistance; it is the hegemonic power in South Lebanon. But Hezbollah must also acknowledge, which it does and which is partly why it is successful, that it can’t alienate these other genealogies and the ordinary forms of resistance that people live with every day. On one level, Hezbollah is very ideological; on another, it’s extremely practical, and that’s kind of its strength.
How is this resistance, among other forms, a gendered praxis?
In South Lebanon, there are all these different forms of resistance I look at, including tobacco farming. Tobacco is a capitalist cash crop, a monopoly of the Lebanese state. The warp and weft of life in South Lebanon is tobacco. And who works tobacco in South Lebanon? Women. Because the South has been a place of war, many men migrate for work or take up arms. Those who stay are the women and children, and they work the land. Tobacco is called al-nabteh al-murra [the bitter crop] but it’s also called nabtit al-muqawameh [the crop of resistance] because it allows the most vulnerable demographic, which would otherwise have nothing to eat without this income, to live and stay. The tobacco monopoly is one of those stable objects that is the only interface of the state with the Lebanese citizenry that I know of in South Lebanon, and it is moderately successful. The whole system is terribly unequal when it comes to who gets the profits.
But it does provide a sort of a structure and a regularity of income for license holders, the people who farm the tobacco and sell it to the monopoly, which allows them to stay on the land. If you plant subsistence crops, if you live in your own home, and if you plant tobacco, you get an income that allows you to stay in your home and on your land. It allows some sort of life to continue and empowers the disempowered in many ways. Now, of course, tobacco farming has been an oppressive history, controlled by feudal lords and zu‘ama, and there have been many uprisings sparked by the oppressive labor of tobacco. But in a region that has been mired in a conflict that is larger than it appears to be and doesn’t have an easy solution anytime soon, tobacco farming has allowed the most vulnerable people to stay. Tobacco labor is gendered, it’s the work of women, and it has allowed women to empower themselves through this labor, and in a way one can look at tobacco farming as a form of gendered resistance.
Beyond the usual liberal humanist indignation and racialized morality in the discourse on war, which we’ve seen most recently in the context of Ukraine, how are you thinking about war differently starting from the South (South Lebanon and the Global South)?
I really love this question because it allows me to talk about what I feel is one of the most important interventions of my book which is theorizing war from the South beyond Northern paradigms. In many ways, the Second World War was the war to end all wars in the Global North. When they ended that war, the losers were the losers, and the winners were the winners, and the winners basically established the order that we call the global order. For the winners, what became normative was “Peace,” and “War” became an aberration perpetrated by “barbarians” and “savages.” In other words, after World War Two, war was outsourced to the Global South where war continued. They called it the “Cold War.” Okay, fine, it was a cold war in the US and in Europe but it was boiling hot for us, in Lebanon, for example. Beirut, where I grew up, was one of the sites of the Cold War, [the civil war was] a hot war of the Cold War. Of course, it’s not the only explanation for what was going on in Lebanon, but various sides of the Cold War funded and armed various sides of the conflict.
Wars, then, never ended; they only ended for those who have dominated theories of war. Those theorists often think of war as an event, a violent event, and its protagonists are ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians.’ As an event, it’s something that ends, and if it happens, it’s an exception. Whereas from the South, war is often ongoing, and it never ends. It’s not a place where we only die, because when you live in war, we’re also living in war. Dying is something that you try not to do so your focus is on living, right? So how do you think of war as a habitat? What I want to do with this is to show how this so-called exception, this devastating space within which people are continuing to make their lives, is something that we have to put alongside processes, like capitalism, and understand within the logic of the nation-state. [Capitalism and the nation-state] are formations of violence that we have normalized and no longer see as violent.
From the South, war is often ongoing and it never ends. Thinking of war from the South puts into question the violent formations of capitalism and the nation-state, and pushes back on hegemonic notions of war that only make sense if we accept that we are somehow savages who only know how to live in a violent world.
If we put war alongside them, you’ll come to realize that war is a component of capitalism; that war is one of the main pillars of the nation-state. So why is it that we think of war as exceptional, although it is so central to the way in which these orders propagate themselves? Thinking of war in this way puts into question capitalism and the nation-state. So, when you think of war from the South, you’re really pushing back on hegemonic notions of war that don’t make sense to us. They only make sense if we accept that we are somehow deserving of war and violence; that we’re somehow the savages who only know how to live in a violent world, and that’s not the case.
You write, “I began to make out features defined by what appear as patterns, practices, tendencies, textures, rhythms, proclivities, loves, edibles, interdictions, imaginaries, desires, fears. Those made themselves apparent to me in time. They teased out the peculiarities of this place, composing it.” There’s a rich, sumptuous, evocative flair in your writing; do you ever imagine how this book could become in another format, say as a work of speculative fiction?
Wonderful question, thank you. My dream life is to be a writer; being an academic was my Plan B, which seems to be taking most of my life. Anthropology, thankfully, allows you to write poetically. So, there’s two parts to answering this question: There’s what I did, and there’s what I wish I could do. When you start writing an ethnography, which is very invested in telling real stories, you flesh out scenes, build characters, and put together narratives that then become more real than the actual thing because you work over the writing again and again and again and again. I started to think about lived experience through what I was writing. Sometimes, when you write, you have a poetic license. Of course, in anthropology you need to obscure identifiers, so I have created characters who are based on real characters but they’re not the real characters. I know who they are, but I tend to think of them as the characters in my book because I lived with the characters in my book for much longer than the people I encountered in the field who are my friends. But the intimacy that came through writing them and my knowledge of them is through writing.
There’s always something fictional, in the sense of being made, and this is something that the literary turn in anthropology pointed to, namely, that all forms of writing is fiction. It pointed to the idea that you’re writing and that becomes the object that’s created. And, of course there’s truth in that, and luckily I’m in a field that allows it. I insist on the intimacy of my writing because I truly believe that all knowledge comes from an intimate space. When people say things like, “this is so subjective; how is it science?” But all science is like this. The most abstract mathematical concept comes out of a living, breathing, farting, shitting brain; there’s nothing outside of it. So ethnography is a form of fiction. Writing it can be lush and romanticizing, like I do. I hate that I do that, but I do romanticize to humanize. It’s a ploy. People empathize with the reality of others who no longer are barbarians living in war zones, but people readers care about and can relate to.
Now, what I would like to do is to write without having to speak to theory. Of course, theory is in all writing. But in academic writing you must make it explicit. You have to engage with discourses because that’s what academia is: a conversation. You have to make clear what your intervention is; you have to draw on; you have to alter; you have to make your mark on a discourse. It would be nice if I could do less of that… After this first book, I would love to write straight up fiction. Of course, fiction is not just fiction; it’s always a relation to and a commentary on the world. Now, I’m working on a novel related to life in this place and I’m hoping that this could see the life of day. We’ll see.