Of absurd rituals and inexhaustible futility

 August 31, 2004 12:00 AM

CAIRO: A rumor floating around about one Arab airline says that the crew, concerned that children might play with the life jackets, removed them from under the seats and put them away near the cockpit, promising that, in case of emergency, they would promptly distribute them.

A fact, not a rumor, about one Arab airport, says that the administration decided to set up automatic vending machines in every hall in a display of their technological advancement. Yet still the administration appointed a vendor next to every machine so one gives the money to the vendor who slips money into the machine, takes the can of soda, and gives it to customers with a smile. It is also a fact that most of these vending machines broke down in short order, but the human vendors still go to the airport, three shifts a day, just to stand still next to the machines.

Another rumor, this time spread by a former member of an Arab parliament and a former professor of mine, says that all laws in one Arab country are unconstitutional, because there are never enough members in parliament to hold a constitutional session; members of parliament just do not attend, and when they do, they always represent less than 50 percent plus one. The only exception to this rule is when the head of state is giving a speech.

An Arab professor of regional politics classified Arab parties in the 20th century in three categories: socialists, liberals and Islamists. I objected to such categorization on the basis that it neglects the differences between socialist nationalists and communists by lumping them together in the same slot. I argued that such a differentiation is necessary to understand much of the region's politics during the Cold War, especially in Syria, Iraq and Egypt. My professor, obviously upset with my remark, said, "Well if you do not like my argument, find yourself somebody else to grade your paper!"

I said, "But how can you explain three decades of the region's history, between the early 1950s and the early 1980s?"  to which she replied, "Well, it is not about the region's history, it is about your exam!"

According to the now-defunct Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel, border points between the Occupied Territories, Egypt and Jordan were put under joint supervision. After being checked and searched by Israelis, the traveler enters an annex at the checkpoint with a small Palestinian flag; inside, there is a counter, a Palestinian officer standing behind it, and a reflective glass wall behind the officer. The traveler is supposed to hand his passport to a Palestinian officer, who does not open the passport. A little drawer comes out of the wall; the Palestinian officer puts the passport in the drawer, and waits. Behind the wall, there is an Israeli officer who checks the passport, the permit and everything else that needs to be checked, then the drawer comes out again, the officer takes the passport, still closed, and with the same smile of the vendor at the airport, hands it back to the traveler.

In all the above examples, actions do not fulfill their purpose: Life jackets do not save lives, automatic machines only work manually, employees are unemployed, parliaments do not legislate, and border officers and non-officers guard a non-border.

Why then do people do what they do? The airplane crew, the border officers, the vending machine vendors, the parliament members and the university professors all know the absurdity of their actions, yet they still go on doing them, like rituals.

A semblance of everything should be maintained, a semblance of work, safety legislation, and border protection is kept in place. It is understandable that this semblance is important for government and political systems in the Arab world to exist - you need airports and borders to claim you are a state, you need universities to claim you have a ministry of higher education - for rituals too serve some kind of political purpose.

In theory, rituals make a number of people do the same thing at the same time, even if the acts themselves have no immediate benefit; the fact that people are doing them together consolidates the sense of togetherness that is necessary to maintain any kind of political power and order. A shaman, who makes his community kneel everyday in front of a certain totem, knows exactly what he is doing, and is not required to be a believer at all.

The comic tragedy however, is that, in the Arab world, even such rituals have either ceased to fulfill their socio-political function, or have fulfilled it in such a manner they are no longer necessary - but nevertheless are still practiced because of some kind of cultural inertia. Precisely because of their absurdity, the semblance of order they create has no credibility whatsoever. Here, the shaman is not asking people to kneel in front of a totem, rather he is asking them to walk on their hands, put a rubber duck in their mouths and sing the national anthem: they cannot sing unless they swallow the rubber duck, and they cannot swallow the duck unless they stand upright. In a sense everything is left to the community's improvisation.

In the political life of today's Arabs, nothing is anywhere near its purpose. Repetitive defeats might have created a sense of uselessness in today's Arab that he or she does not really expect that doing whatever it is that they do would have any meaning. On the other hand, continuous oppression prevented them from being rebellious enough and stop doing it. So they find some way of simultaneously doing it and not doing it.

Like the dancers with the rubber ducks, impossible juggling is the core of our political lives.

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