On the 27th September 2006 Moris Farhi read out his poem ‘Tomorrow’ in honour of the event Lebanon, Lebanon; a night of poetry, music and dance to coincide with the release of the book of the same title. Farhi’s poem was well received, perhaps the best of the night. It is a testament to a great writer that an audience’s inherently conditioned, immediate reaction to applaud was for a brief moment stemmed, wavering to believe in a poem that had so astutely defined the realities of the Middle-East conflict.
Farhi’s poem is one of contrast and paradox; a piece showing dark and beautifully subtle ironies, where a simple form belies a complex message. One in which exists simultaneous presence and absence, and disparate contrasts of structure, time, religion, politics and hope.
The poem originates with the straightforward and immediate contrast of the title ‘Tomorrow’ to the first word ‘Yesterday’. In asserting, through the title, the main focus of the poem as being ‘Tomorrow’ and then commencing the body of the poem with ‘Yesterday’, Farhi implicates that there is to be a natural progression, leading chronologically to a known conclusion. Superficially the poem does not disappoint, leading us from ‘Yesterday’ to ‘Today’ to ‘Tomorrow’; a progression reinforced by the capitalisation of these three words and only these three within the poem.
Yet the poem’s three-sectioned composition and apparently continuous time-shift forward is misleading. Farhi’s technique defies the normal structures that one would assume it to possess.
For such a piece it would seem appropriate to examine it in the light of Johann Fichte’s neo-Kantian development of dialectic, adopted by Hegel to outline the move from revolution to a constitutional state, in which a ‘thesis’ and an ‘antithesis’ combine to create a ‘synthesis’ . Within Hegel’s use of the dialectic the ‘thesis’ of the French Revolution and the following ‘antithesis’ of the Reign of Terror caused and concluded in the ‘synthesis’ of a constitutional state for free citizens. Within ‘Tomorrow’ the linear schemata for this dialectic should therefore be:
‘Yesterday’: from which the dialectic originates, shows us an imperfect political basis for a political state, yet it also provides the necessary premonition of progression in which ‘myths and prophecies’ have ‘promised clement times’. And even within itself it seems to provide the basis for an oncoming synthesis, in which there are ‘two kinds of leader’, both diametric opposites.
Within this basis mankind possesses a ‘love for life and wisdom to create’, almost separated or at least attempting separation from the political basis of society by disjointing terms such as ‘yet’ and ‘somehow’. The use of the, grammatically unnecessary, qualifying adverb ‘still’ reveals to the reader, firstly, that nature in Farhi’s (or perhaps it is al-Ma’arri’s) scheme is separate from politics, ‘still’ able to exist within an unsound political state, and, secondly, that nature may, in the future, cease to exist, whereas it ‘still’ existed in the past.
‘Today’: appears to commence with a ‘synthesis’, in which ‘leaders have congealed into one kind’. Yet the reality of leaders with ‘no religion and no brains’ is the same antithesis seen in the reality of the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. And, just as in the Reign of Terror, although the primary ‘myths and prophecies’ of progression have ceased to exist, yet they ‘are still remembered’.
Yet again mankind’s existence is separated from the political spectrum, and must be so in order to survive. Within the antithesis survival is harder, termed by the almost sloganistic phrase ‘strive to survive’. Nature’s necessary separation from the political is reiterated, as it is ‘still here/defiant’.
‘Tomorrow’: as a result of the linear progression of thesis and antithesis, the political system has disappeared altogether, and the primary and secondary ‘myths and prophecies . . . have been effaced’.
Mankind no longer possesses ‘love for life’ or ‘wisdom to create’ and nature no longer exists, and although there is a central repetition of ‘skies’ and ‘sun’ and ‘sea’ we find no presence of the repeated qualifying adverb ‘still’, which before ensured the existence of the natural order.
In the final synthesis, as in Hegel’s teachings, the real relationship between nature and freedom is revealed. Politics has destroyed this vital duality and as such has destroyed itself. With such a synthesis Farhi does not present us with Hegel’s so commonly romanticised philosophical and historical results, but a nihilistic reading of the dialectic form.
In the end, Hegel, following the writings of Jakob Böhme, believed that the Fall of Man was a necessary stage in the evolution of the universe, and was a result of God’s desire for complete self-awareness. Farhi’s Fall of Man however, is presented from an entirely humanistic and secular perspective.
In this simultaneous adoption and corruption of the dialectic purpose Farhi supports Hegel’s conceptions of speculative logic (ie. dialectic), absolute idealism, ethical life, and the importance of history. His purposefully discouraging perception forces the reader to consider that the Lebanon conflict contains the structures of ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’ either to create a successful ‘synthesis’, or the nihilistic one which is presented to us. So far, unlike Hegel’s Logic , the crises in the Middle East do not seem to have followed the theoretical paradox that Existence and Nothing join to create Becoming; in ‘Tomorrow’ they merely become ‘Nothing’ once more.
Farhi’s realistic vision does not intone that we can choose between a perfect future and an imperfect one. We are given the simple choice of an imperfect future built on the Palestinian Israeli peace-process, or no future at all because, even if it does not lead to the absence of existence seen in ‘Tomorrow’, there is no future in the catch-22 of cause and effect retaliation adopted by Israeli and Lebanese forces and successively the PLO, Hezbollah and Fatah al-Islam. If one takes Lebanon itself as a ‘thesis’, and then the civil war (1975-7), the South Lebanon Conflict (1982-2000), the July War (2006) and the current North Lebanon conflict as an ‘antithesis’, then the ‘synthesis’ is obvious to foresee.
In presenting us with this choice, Farhi creates a defence against the Hegelian conception of history as a rational discussion throughout time. In Hegel’s view the Palestinian-Israeli peace process would be seen as fundamentally flawed. With the (often immediate) relation of the peace agreements to the structure of the Palestinian government, the peace deals in themselves can be viewed as social contracts. As such, their creation in the present time (ie. ‘Today’) is ahistorical, which means that their creators, as members of the present, necessarily lack the ability to deliberate upon them and their implications in the future (ie. ‘Tomorrow’). Farhi shows us that Hegel’s belief in the necessity of timeless debate upon a subject is implausible, as without the social contract existing in the first place, we could not exist in the future to participate in this debate. As the poet Dante puts it so sublimely in his Inferno :
Però comprender puoi che tutta morta
fia nostra conoscenza da quel punto
che del futuro fia chiuza la porta.
Thou canst understand, therefore, that all our knowledge will be dead from the moment the door of the future is closed.
Canto X. ln.106-8
Farhi’s repudiation of Hegel runs alongside the trend of twentieth century criticism on Hegel’s conception of history, which asserts that he purposefully ignores the realities of history in order for it to conform to his dialectic mould. As Karl Popper says in The Open Society and Its Enemies:
Hegel points out that all personal relations can thus be reduced to the fundamental relation of master and slave, of domination and submission. Each must strive to assert and prove himself, and he who has not the nature, the courage, and the general capacity for preserving his independence, must be reduced to servitude. This charming theory of personal relations has, of course, its counterpart in Hegel's theory of international relations. Nations must assert themselves on the Stage of History; it is their duty to attempt the domination of the World.
Whether Popper or Hegel are correct in their assertions, it is a reading that contemporary western liberal ideals as well as an Arab population tired of constant conflict would dread to apply to the Lebanon conflict.
And perhaps this highlights what is partly the problem in the peace process. Society has created an inherent support or hope within itself for Hegel’s comprehensive, evolving, rational union; in which the contradictions within the Arab-Israeli conflict would create a higher unity. However, in the process it has chosen to ignore that the basis of this unity is contradiction and tension, a constant battle between opposing dualities – one example provided by Hegel of this indeed being the duality of freedom and authority.
The reality is that one must accept these dualities, and self-reflexive the Master-Slave dialectic if one is to reach a point at which racial and religious divides become obsolete. If both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict proceed with the same one-sided, Cycloptic nationalism as berated in James Joyce’s Ulysses, then the self-nullifying realities of the arguments behind the conflict will never be recognised and accepted – and the harmony to be found within disharmony itself will never be realised.
Even the early structure of the poem shows this dark irony, of an apparent ‘whole’ lacking a structural harmony. It contains no punctuation and no apparent continuous syllabic pattern. Yet the repetitive lexicon and shape of the poem is one that asserts a structure; each line within each stanza is comparable to another within a separate stanza, either in its presence or its absence. The central repetition of ‘the skies/the sun/the sea’ leads to the inevitable ‘no skies/no sun/no sea’ and is a repetition which centres the whole poem. Yet the fact that ‘the skies/the sun/the sea’ are eventually and irreversibly absent means that in reality it is a false centre, and the poem’s form becomes as absent as its subject.
Farhi’s title also becomes not simply a title but a conclusion, it is fate stated simply and unavoidably. Just as tomorrow will come, so will a time when ‘there are/no skies/no sun/no sea’ . The simplicity of Farhi’s listing of skies and sun and sea shows us the simple reality of the future that he points out to us. It is a tenet of modern Western society, stemming from the forceful creation of the ‘necessity’ for official mass documentation in the nineteenth century, that a list is to be implicitly trusted. Within society’s self-created psyche a list may stand for two things: a statement representing a factual situation that has or is occurring (empirical evidence, description of place or person, a summation of the underlying importances within a situation), or a statement representing intent or something that will occur in the future (a governmental plan, or even simply a shopping list). If, for example, a government does not fulfil the tasks that it set down as its intent, then it is measured against that original statement, in such a way that the list remains fact and it is merely those that have attempted to fulfil it that become fiction. If someone lists their own qualities, then the list portrays not the fact of what their qualities are but the fact of what they perceive their qualities to be (or what they want the listener to perceive their qualities to be). Within linguistics the basis taught to generations of children for the correct grammatical use of a colon has been that its purpose is to represent that there is to be a statement or list of fact after it has been used. And so with its use of this listing quality the poem becomes an irrefutable statement. Farhi therefore plays on man’s willingness to believe. No one can disbelieve a list and no one can avoid time, therefore syllogistically if tomorrow must come, then we must disappear.
There is an irony within the similarity of this itemised structure to the currently prevalent, politicised speech methodology of reiterating a point over and over again in slightly different yet generally similar guises. It is oddly this Sophist based condition of convincing the public of whatever one wants to prove, instead of convincing the public of the truth, that we see in Farhi’s main repetition of three images. His separation of ‘the skies/the sun/the sea’ onto separate lines becomes highly reminiscent of the common assertive oratory use of three similarly forceful, mono or decasyllabic phrases within a slogan. However, this list is not only a collection of objects present throughout time, for they are also the objects with which we can measure and chronologise time itself. These trees and skies and sea seem not to have changed in their detail. In Farhi’s world these objects do not age; they are either there or not. Time no longer has control over nature; it is man that has usurped this power of life or death. The overall result of this however, is not man’s control over time but his loss of it. Farhi shows us that the more civilization tries to control the world around it, the more it paradoxically loses that control.
The immediate introduction of ‘the poet Al-Ma’arri’ within ‘Tomorrow’ also strikes a most welcome note of religious tolerance. By originating a poem with the testament of a notably atheist poet, Farhi shows us a fate for Lebanon that is ignorant of religion. Farhi’s own Judaic beliefs are not forced upon the reader as a theme, or a parallel aspect to Islam. In no way is there a placing of religious right or wrong. As Farhi once said, a writer’s duty is to show:
that the destruction of lives and cultures and the pursuit of power are evil, that religion and the Sacred Books have lost their meaning because they invariably exclude "the other". The basic commandment of loving our fellow-beings, especially of loving the strangers in our midst, irrespective of their race, creed or religion, has been discarded out of sanctimonious expediency.
In ‘Tomorrow’ Farhi is commenting upon the physical world and the physical world only. He highlights a fate for the Middle East that is ignorant of religion or creed, Sunni or Shia, Israeli or Palestinian. We are shown the brutal reality of the future that the current warring in the Middle East will create. In Farhi’s view, it is a future that will be catastrophic for all peoples and religions. One that is ignored due to a past filled with the squabbles of those very leaders with ‘brains and no religion’ versus those ‘with religion and no brains’. One ignored by all but ‘unquiet souls’.
‘Today’ is a time filled with irony. The ‘unquiet souls’ that are the voice of dissent are paradoxical within themselves. They are un-quiet in the sense that they are loud voices of dissent. They are un-quiet in the sense of being uncomfortable (ie. unquieted), in their realization of the current state of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yet importantly they are also unquiet in the sense of being uncomforted, in having no external support. Farhi shows us that however loud a soul may warn us of present day conditions, it is widely ignored, unheard in the tumult of war and bureaucracy. Thus an ‘unquiet voice’ becomes quietened and another aspect of ‘clement days’ is lost to us. In our no longer ‘art’-centric society, no single voice can make itself heard like al-Ma’arri did.
It is at this point that Farhi’s paradox of Time’s absence and presence constructively deconstructs itself; for ‘Tomorrow’ this will be even truer, as there will be no voices left. Nothing to be unquiet about as there is no one to be unquiet. Farhi builds upon this negation of a word through a prefix (un-quiet) and repeats it only once more, but to such effect as is astonishing: ‘Tomorrow the unborn will say’. Such a singular stress on a compound adjective is unnerving. Farhi brings us even deeper into the irony of our situation. As with Hegel’s ‘speculative logic’ the reader-response to ‘Tomorrow’ is to analyse the future; we are made historian poets. As Farhi once commented:
We are so privileged to be able to look back on history, subsume it as an integral part of our lives. And, alas, more often than not, we study it in the wrong spirit, unreflectively.iv
In his poem Farhi shows us that ‘Tomorrow’ there will be no more of this. There will be no one to study the history of the Arab conflict, Arab culture or poetry:
no love for life and no wisdom to create
and myths and prophecies
of clement times
will have been effaced
there are no people left
And so the study of history becomes futile if the current crisis of political and nationalistic ignorance continues. In Farhi’s eyes all that we do, this very poem, the publication of Lebanon, Lebanon, his reading on the night and the audience’s applause: all could become pointless because, although we can look upon the past now, there will be no one to look upon us. Governmental actions of construction, representative merely of bureaucratic lip service, are void while self-nullifying retaliatory actions from both the governments and nationalistic societies continue.
As Israel and Palestine both question the other’s right to exist as a state, they lead each other toward a time when neither will exist. ‘Tomorrow’ the question of land will become even more futile than it is now. The irony is that (if one adopts the Confucian perspective) theoretically the current crisis does not exist anyway because if it continues we will not, and therefore, as it will never be known to have existed, it will never actually have existed. It seems impossible to think of a word to define melancholy-farce, but in his poetry Farhi achieves such a state.
As aforementioned we are given a poem with no punctuation between time frames, in fact no punctuation at all. This is a poem in which the past, present and future are not divided and mutually exclusive but linked and mutually dependant. The title ‘Tomorrow’ now adapts from being a title and conclusion to being part of the poem as well. It is part of the poem’s circular nature. We originate with tomorrow, because without a tomorrow there can be no yesterday or today.
YESTERDAY This Day’s Madness did prepare;
TOMORROW’S Silence, Triumph, or Despair.
On leaving ‘Lebanon, Lebanon’ I chanced to walk past Moris Farhi, yet failed to shake his hand or ask for his autograph. I was rather hoping to ask if the paradoxes of ‘Tomorrow’ were based on those inherent in ‘Unnecessary Necessity’ (Luzum ma la yalzam; لزوم ما لا يلزم أو اللزوميات), a poetry collection belonging to his self-proclaimed authority on ‘Yesterday’, ‘the poet Al-Ma’arri’. Unfortunately I was unable to gain the courage enough to greet him, but as he passed I saw a man who appeared cheerful and content. Perhaps it was the success of the event, perhaps of his reading. Yet for a man that is (as he puts it himself) ‘something like an ever-hopeful Tiresias.’iv, perhaps it was a faith in the existence of a tomorrow. Hopefully Farhi’s poem will disprove itself, exist and be appreciated, and never reach a time when the no one can enjoy the complex reality behind its beautiful simplicity.
Lebanon, Lebanon is published by Saqi Books (www.saqibooks.com), it is only £10 and all proceeds from the sale of the book go to children’s charities in Lebanon. It includes writings from such figures as Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, John le Carré, Jung Chang, Margaret Drabble, Robert Fisk, V. S. Naipaul, Orhan Pamuk, George Szirtes and many more.