John T. Chalcraft. The Invisible Cage: Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. xv + 310 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-5825-3; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-5826-0.
Reviewed by Max Weiss
Published on H-Levant (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Amy A. Kallander (Syracuse University)
The Dark Side of "Brotherly" Love
Enter Lebanon, through the Masna‘ border crossing on the Damascus-Beirut road, for example, and you will find four sections of passport processing to choose from: foreigners, Arabs, Lebanese nationals, and Syrians. Technically, all non-Lebanese Arabs are “foreigners”; most Syrians are both “foreigners” and “Arabs” (there is a sizable population of Turks, Turkmens and Kurds in Syria as well). Ask any border guard for the reasoning behind such a fourfold classification system, and you may be told that it results from the historically “brotherly” relations conjoining Syria and Lebanon. In spite of the fact that citizens of Syria have been permitted to enter and exit the Lebanese Republic without visas since the inception of the two countries following the dissolution of French Mandate rule, the presence of Syrians in Lebanon--whether as tourists, visitors, military intelligence, soldiers or, as with the case of the subjects of John Chalcraft’s new book, The Invisible Cage: Syrian Workers in Lebanon, as wage laborers--has occasionally become a serious bone of contention, especially at key moments over the past two decades.
In an effort to explain the economic, social, and political circumstances giving rise to what he calls “an almost completely unknown but important case of migration and return,” that of seasonal and more-than-seasonal work done by Syrians in Lebanon, Chalcraft “combines the methods of ethnography and social history.” Drawing upon Gramscian notions of hegemony--a field of contestation in which the power of the dominant is dependent on and sustained through both consent and coercion--and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s elegant conception of “elective affinities”--a dynamic complex in which both active and passive forces of attraction bring together and bond individual physical, or, in this case, social elements--Chalcraft is interested in “the ways in which migrants are unfixed, made mobile, channeled, enmeshed, and subordinated within objectifying structures of accumulation by combinations of coercion and consent, repression and choice.” Signifying both volitional decision-making as well as the subjective experience of being elected, Chalcraft’s choice of “election” works quite successfully in describing the context of migrant labor, conveying as it does a sense of how multiple, often contradictory forms of attraction and repulsion may act upon individuals. The broader comparative point being argued here is that “forms of direct and unmediated discipline” are reconstituted under late capitalism over migrant workers in “the direct and indirect discipline of a constructed 'labour market'" that was “comprised less of the benign forces of the 'invisible hand' and more of the ensnaring operations of an invisible cage” (p. 3). In a clever mash-up of Max Weber’s “iron cage” of material determinism and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding the distribution of goods and services under capitalist conditions of production and reproduction, such an “invisible cage” would appear to structure and delimit the conditions of possibility not only for wage workers but also any other human beings engaged in the buying or selling of labor-power. Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon are caught in this invisible cage, suspended somehow between “prolonged unsettlement”--that is, being at home neither in Lebanon nor in Syria any longer--and “exilic rotation”--moving between life-worlds in Syria and Lebanon, forever lost in a state of unstable quasi-exile: “Migration, with all its social miseries and forms of commodification and communal dismemberment, seemed only to pave the way for more migration” (p. 48).
Among the sources employed in The Invisible Cage are: newspapers and magazines, various (and, of course, heavily disputed) labor and population statistics, ample secondary sources predominantly in French and English, as well as a limited number of interviews conducted in Lebanon and Syria during the turbulent years of 2004 and 2005. Following a theoretical introduction laying out the themes just discussed, the book unfolds through five chronological chapters, each of which deals with a different phase of Syrian labor migration. Chapter 1, “By God, My Brother, Come Back to Us,” focuses on the modest trickle of “outmigration” from Greater Syria from the late nineteenth century up until the Second World War, most of which consisted of men drawn from rural communities that were then experiencing gradually improving economic circumstances. In other words, these migrants left with the optimistic hopes of returning home with “the means of a more independent existence” (p. 45). In some ways, the story told in these pages is a tragic one of the failure of Syrian workers to successfully appropriate and make use of their own “means” in order to establish economic self-sufficiency.
Chapter 2, “We Were Like Ghosts, Unseen,” argues somewhat hyperbolically that “the case of the whole generation of Syrian workers who migrated to Lebanon in the 1950s and 1960s ... was a mass migration of menial labor on which the Lebanese economy was built and on which the Syrian economy came to rely” (p. 53). Subsequently, and contrary to what one might expect, Syrian workers in Lebanon did not automatically flee the country at the first signs of violence and bloodshed in the context of the Lebanese civil wars (1975-1989). Chapter 3, “In the Name of the Martyrs,” explores the persistence of this system of “hegemonic economic control,” in which Syrian workers continued to be employed primarily as unskilled laborers, in construction and transport as well as retail, service, and domestic work.
Chapter 4, “Pax Syriana,” tracks the transformation of this labor regime in Lebanon following the Ta’if Accord (1989), particularly in the tourism and (re)construction sectors, demonstrating some of the challenges and contradictions that confronted Syrian laborers working in the shadow of Syrian occupation, what Chalcraft too benignly renders as “Syrian military presence.” Chapter 5, “Instability and Exile,” examines the break-up of the pax Syriana since the late 1990s. In the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, hostility against many manifestations of Syrian presence in the country was occasionally translated into acts of arson, assault, and even murder against Syrian workers in Lebanon.
The presence of Syrian workers in Lebanon remains one of several flashpoints in the ongoing transformation of Syrian-Lebanese relations in what might be called the tumultuous post-post-Ta’if period (2005-present). Tackling such a heavily politicized subject head on, The Invisible Cage is a book that doesn’t hesitate to step into the ring and engage in raucous debate, while at the same time providing some fascinating insights from out of the mouths of laborers themselves, convincingly establishing both that Syrian workers are indeed conscious subjects of history and that they hold divergent and occasionally surprising views on their own lives and the political-economic situation in Lebanon and Syria generally. Indeed, one unmistakable strength of this book is that it takes seriously the voices, feelings, and experiences of wage workers themselves, individual actors who have not generally been heard from, drowned out by mainstream political and economic discourse that subsumes them under either a national signifier (Syria) or an economic category (workers). One particularity of the experience of labor migration described in this stimulating book appears to be the fact that it was highly individualized and individuated. Syrian workers in Lebanon have neither constituted a class “in itself” nor “for itself.” In sum, the narrative tone hovers somewhere between reasoned defense of both the common humanity and individual rights of Syrian workers in Lebanon (and migrant workers generally), on the one hand, and a counter-attack against those who have done violence--symbolic or physical--to Syrians in Lebanon, on the other hand. If “Syrian workers have an armory of further notions responding to wider opprobrium in Lebanon” (p. 171), they now have The Invisible Cage as a weapon in their arsenal as well.
While questions and criticisms will no doubt arise through further readings, The Invisible Cage stands out as the first major attempt to fill in some of the historical, economic, and political dimensions to what have essentially remained ideological battles surrounding the ongoing realignment of Syrian-Lebanese relations, and on these grounds alone, it deserves praise and a wide audience. Thought-provoking and bold, the book is certain to attract an interested readership among scholars and students of Middle East history, politics, anthropology, and economics (although practitioners of each discipline are likely to find the methodological approach somewhat eclectic). A wider circle of readers interested in issues of political economy, migration, and the social history of labor should also find the book to be of interest.
Be that as it may, it is worth mentioning how this provocative book tends to take certain voices more seriously than they might merit, regularly drawing far-reaching conclusions from more modest empirical material. We might call this selective source-criticism and explain it by way of an example drawn from the book. As mentioned, Syrian laborers appear to have continued working in Lebanon at surprisingly high levels despite rampant instability and danger in Beirut and beyond from 1975 onward. In this period of generalized upheaval, Chalcraft devotes some attention to “the only sustained period of labor organizing among Syrian workers in Lebanon” (p.119), an end-of-compensation dispute set on the Beirut waterfront during the summer of 1979 pitting dockworkers against Lebanese shipping companies. The main piece of evidence adduced is an open letter of protest, originally published in the Lebanese press, and reproduced in full in the book. “In the name of three thousand workers,” the letter opens, “who expend in exemplary fashion their energies and lifeblood in the cause of selfless giving and construction, [and who are] the axle driving the wheel of progress, the pillars of the system, and the bridge binding together two brotherly Arab peoples.... They threw bombs at us and we replied with generosity and roses” (pp. 121-122). The flowery language of Ba‘thist Romantic discourse oozes with tropes of “struggle” and “heroism” and “blood,” and is more or less taken at face value, glossed as an example of “rousing prose,” without even a hint of irony. Considering the instincts of the author to challenge and criticize other theories and concepts--from neoclassical economics and modernization theory to encrusted Marxian dogma--it is a bit curious to discover that such rhetorically self-serving paeans to the glory of Arabism and workers does not come in for the same sort of scrutiny. Chalcraft argues that this was a “conjunctural” albeit aborted attempt at “labor organizing,” which only later devolved into a doctrinaire and “dirigiste” phenomenon managed from above.
This event is described as “direct collective action and popular confrontation” (p. 123); the sources cited are three newspapers from the middle of August 1979. This incident turns out to have been overseen and explicitly approved by President Hafiz al-Asad himself along with his hand-picked labor representatives. The subsequent absence of Syrian labor organizing in Lebanon is explained as, among other things, a function of “the diminishing will of the Syrian government on the matter” (p. 133). Whatever impact this event may have had on the consciousness and experience of Syrian workers in Lebanon as individuals or en masse, would it not stand to reason that lingering traces of fear and anxiety (let alone outright outrage) over Syrian influence were, at least, partially justified, having resulted from this and other such lived experiences of external intervention? Regardless of how critics of Syrian involvement in Lebanese affairs felt about labor rights and social protections in general, their sense that workers were somehow bound up with larger state policies of interventionism seems less than irrational however mistaken they may have been. Indeed, it is out of such shadowy spaces inhabited by governments, intelligence agencies, military personnel, and even workers that popular (and not only “pro-Lebanese”) fears of foreign domination are often stoked.
The Invisible Cage may be read as a defense of Syrian workers against spurious yet all too real kinds of assault. But even if “not all workers combat opprobrium by defending the Syrian position in toto” (p. 172), an uncritical solidarity leads Chalcraft to take some curious positions vis-à-vis Syrian authoritarianism and its particular variant of state capitalism. “The Lebanese economy has long been in a parlous state,” he writes, in an understated reference to the tragic and enduring collapse of political and economic order in civil war-era and postwar Lebanon. “Syrians,” on the other hand, “were not driven from the countryside by the failures of state capitalism and Ba‘thism. On the contrary, Ba‘thist protection gave Syrians a reason to return, while the domain of economic liberalism par excellence, Lebanon, had long suffered from what it increasingly considered a national hemorrhage in the form of emigration rates as high or higher than almost any other country on the globe” (p. 225). Oddly, “protection” appears to merit ironic quotation marks in the context of creeping French influence in the region prior to and during the early stages of the Mutasarrifiyya, the special administration set up in Beirut and Mount Lebanon by the Ottomans under European pressure in 1861 (p. 14), but not in the case of Syrian authoritarianism and corporatism. But beyond “Ba‘thist protection”--the multiple meanings of the term nearly leap off the page--the book shows how enduring family ties, social obligation, and nostalgic attachment to home also encouraged Syrians to return. Is this barb pointed at the “national hemorrhage” of Lebanon necessary? However “parlous” the Lebanese economy may have been, is it reasonable to ascribe the same weight to Lebanon’s “economic liberalism” as to the broad humanitarian suffering and generalized terror brought about by all manner of instability, bloody civil war, and international aggression in explaining the history of Lebanese emigration? Must the protection of rights, stability, and human flourishing in Lebanon and Syria be reduced to a kind of zero-sum game in which one country is forever in danger of being upended by the actions of the other, or else scorned by the seemingly never-ending deployment of opprobrium and blame? Can brotherly and sisterly relations ever truly thrive between the two countries at official and popular levels?
In March 2009, Lebanon opened the doors for the first time to an embassy in Syria and Syria named its first ambassador to Lebanon (Syria had quietly opened its own embassy in Lebanon in December 2008 after a joint Syrian-Lebanese memorandum of October 2008 explicitly endorsed such measures). The formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the “brotherly” nations of Syria and Lebanon appears to symbolize the momentary triumph of both colonialist and particular nationalist visions of the former lands of Greater Syria (bilad al-sham). It remains to be seen how this will affect border crossings like the one at Masna‘. Although officials from both countries have indicated that visa and residency regulations governing citizens of Syria and Lebanon will remain, unlike those in place for other foreign nationals, it will be interesting to watch how the labor regime, among other things, adapts and evolves in relation to such developments. One waits and wonders what effects a more efficiently monitored border environment, increased regulation of the local labor regime, and the reform of state protections for workers might have on the lives, livelihoods, and earning power of Lebanese and Syrian citizens alike. Looking toward the future, in the absence of any comparable scenario, the issue of Syrian wage laborers working in Lebanon is unlikely to become any less divisive even as Syrian-Lebanese relations continue to be renegotiated.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-levant.
Max Weiss. Review of Chalcraft, John T., The Invisible Cage: Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon.
H-Levant, H-Net Reviews.
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