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Yet another lesson in pessoptimism - A short ethnography of hope and despair with one Palestinian refugee in Lebanon

Sylvain Perdigon


Sylvain Perdigon, "Yet another lesson in pessoptimism - A short ethnography of hope and despair with one Palestinian refugee in Lebanon ", REVUE Asylon(s), N°5, septembre 2008, Palestiniens en / hors camps., url de référence: http://www.reseau-terra.eu/article805.html


Qu’est-ce qu’espérer, rester même attaché à la vie, dans un environnement géopolitique et légal, comme celui des réfugiés palestiniens du Liban, où imaginer l’avenir revient à se représenter une série d’impossibilités ? Cet essai revisite la notion de pessoptimisme (Emile Habibi), à l’aide à la lumière de la paire conceptuelle du possible et du virtuel (Bergson), pour restituer la formation du quotidien, comme site de désespoir et d’enthousiasme, dans la trajectoire biographique, urbaine et relationnelle d’Abu Said—un chauffeur palestinien hors-la-loi à Beyrouth.

David Sylvester : Doesn’t that belie your view that you’re essentially an optimistic person ?
Francis Bacon : Ah well, you can be optimistic and totally without hope. One’s basic nature is totally without hope, and yet one’s nervous system is made out of optimistic stuff. It does not make any difference to my awareness of the shortness of the moment of existence between birth and death. And that’s one thing I’m conscious of all the time. And I suppose it does come through in my paintings.
D. Sylvester, F. Bacon, The brutality of fact


Like pain, hope, and despair, are occasion for failures of acknowledgement. In chapter 4 of Candide, the hero runs into Pangloss, his former master of philosophy, dying of syphilis, ‘covered with pustules, his eyes were sunken, the end of his nose rotted off, his mouth twisted, his teeth black, he had a croaking voice and a hacking cough, and spat a tooth every time he tried to speak’. Candide, much afflicted by this sight, says in substance : shouldn’t we lose all faith in a world where such a thing is possible ? Not at all, Pangloss replies. Because, had not Christopher Columbus caught syphilis on an American island, I would not be dying from syphilis, but we would not have chocolate either (no mention is made of the suffering of the inhabitants of these islands where Columbus discovered syphilis and cocoa). In its own way, Voltaire’s sarcastic masterpiece bears witness to the painful experience of being stricken, in the proximity of somebody living in hope, by an incapacity to relate to this hope, and to the anxiety that may seize one when, in a seemingly desperate situation, the very existence of hope becomes infinitely puzzling, and hardly bearable. Indeed, the temptation is irresistible, then, to grasp hope as resignation (‘necessity made a virtue’, dear to social scientists), or as a mistake (a mistaken evaluation of the state of the world), verging on psychotic madness (downright denial of one’s condition).

This difficulty, sometimes impossibility, to relate to hope stems from its being contrary to the representations we can produce of the future. It is when we a have a representation of the things to come, and that these things are negative (somebody will die from a terminal illness, a war is about to release itself) that hope becomes an object of amazement, as a disconcerting capacity to hold in check discouraging representations of the future (Bergson 1992:159). In other words, the project undertaken here as an anthropology of hope and despair pertains more generally to an anthropological approach of the attachment to life (223), and, as such, is related both to the question of trauma (how can one keep on living after a life-shattering experience ?) on the one hand, and, on the other, to classical disputes of theodicy and modes of existence (how can one not lose faith in the possibilities of a world afflicted by so much suffering ?). The figure of the mother bemoaning the loss of a child, called upon as emblematic both in works on trauma and in works concerned with theodicy, offers a good illustration of the passage from one domain to the other ; we shall find yet another such example, in a peculiar formation of hope and despair called pessoptimism. Hope and despair, trauma and recovery, theodicy and modes of existence, when constituted as problems, are all, to a certain extent, masks of each other – each is hidden and present under the other, but each conveys its own specificity – and define together the domain that the anthropology of the attachment to life addresses. The specificity of the question of hope and hopelessness lies in its direct relation to the future : whereas trauma and theodicy deal with the status of defeating representations given of the past (trauma) and of the present (theodicy), the capacity of hope to surprise us has everything to do with discouraging representations of the future or, conversely, with the status of something unknown ahead. To formulate the problem in other terms, how can one live without unknown ahead ? [1] Is it even possible, or is it not what we call life or, say, a human life ? – at least, we need ethnographic descriptions. What are the modalities of the unknown here, of the absent future ?

The forces (social and cultural, institutional, political, historical, but also biological, familial, forces of thought, also, and otherwise) that seemingly shape the future, and along the directions of which we produce representations of the future, may define different orders of dispossession – ranging, for example, from a ban on the property of places and things, to an impossibility to possess one’s actions and minds. The question of hope and despair provides a point of entry into the formation of the subject in relation to these diverse forces of dispossession – formation and transformation of the subject when one is the immediate plaything of forces immeasurably greater than one’s strength (Bergson [1932]1993:160), wisp of straw, in the case that will occupy us, in an ocean of wars and exclusionary regulations. The process at stake goes from these forces to the conditions, and limitations, they put on action, and from there to subjectivity. How may a general disruption of means and ends affect the status of the future, the passage of time, and ultimately subjectivity ? Dispossession does not necessarily mean negation and deficiency. The concern is precisely to find of a language to speak of the subject that, in such disrupted everydays, everydays where disruption is a permanent feature, would not be characterized a priori by negation, deficiency, diminution or even vulnerability. The figures of dispossession encountered here are diverse. They include the limitations on action set by a social and political context (denial of home, work, education, health, and so on for a population of refugees) ; two defining features of the passage of time – unpredictability and irreversibility – in relation to which the subject seem to be in a position of radical passivity ; and, hinted at, an exteriority the subject finds in himself, condition of hope, and intimate peril.

This paper speaks of the hope and despair of Abu Saeed, a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, and it is mainly concerned with fieldwork conducted in Summer 2003. I am sending it off (July 2007) as many signs are place that indicate yet another disaster, of a yet recently unthinkable magnitude, about to befall on the Palestinian community in Lebanon ; as the Lebanese government and army have embarked, with the support of their constituency and the international community, on an enterprise of devastating destruction targeting a refugee camp ; as any kind of rational apprehension of the situation in Israel, the Palestinian Occupied territories and the wider region sends back images of discouragement, catastrophe, absent future. I let it to the reader to find, beyond the eccentricity of Abu Saeed, what in his mode of existence speaks of and to the current predicament of his fellow nationals : the madness proper to long-term strategies, of being caught into other people’s maps and designs ; the madness proper to day-to-day survival ; the seduction of discouragement, suicide even ; and, matter for thought, the continuation of, and attachment to life.


An estimated number of 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinian refugees are currently living in Lebanon. [2] Originating not in Gaza or the West Bank but in Galilee and the coastal cities captured by Israel in 1948, they stand virtually no chance, in the present circumstances or in the case of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of returning either to their places of origin or to the areas that might potentially come under Palestinian control. [3] At the same time, opposition to their implantation (tawteen) in Lebanon is one of the very few issues that unite the Lebanese government and public opinion across most of the sectarian communities. Accordingly, since 1982, the Lebanese government has made every effort to make life uncomfortable, and Lebanon unwelcoming, for the Palestinian community. Access to work, education, health care, housing and even property is barred or extremely limited by a series of laws and decrees. [4] To the resulting crises which, by all accounts, are currently reaching alarming levels, must be added the violence of history : the forced expulsion from Galilee in 1948, the harassment of the Lebanese Deuxième bureau (Second office) in the 1960s, open war and violent clashes with a variety of groups (Christian and Shiite Lebanese factions, Israeli and Syrian militaries) throughout the 1970s and 1980s, which, for the bulk of civilians, has meant perpetual disruption and dramatic highlights (Tell Al Zaatar, West Beirut, Sabra and Shatila, the War of the Camps : see Picard 2002 ; Sayigh 1994 ; Kassir 1994).

The context produced by a chaotic, violent history, the minutiae of the law, and the systematic bias at work in its enforcement, seem to define a very limited set of possibilities – conditions that allow little more than survival and decay. What does the passing of time do, in these conditions ? Does time pass at all ? Or does it succeed in cracking the apparent stillness of hardship ? Common sense, said Bergson, has that ‘time is what hinders everything from being given at once’ (Bergson 2003:102). Adopting this definition of time as what hinders everything from being given at once, or more simply, as the minimal experience that not everything is given at once, opens up a number of points of entry into the relations between time and subjectivity. Most importantly, it points to the problematic dimension of the everyday for Palestinians in Lebanon. The accumulation of constraints and limitations on individuals, and the closure of a collective perspective, conspire to make sure that not everything, but a great deal, is already given. The future seems to take the form of a series of impossibilities, and of the naked repetition of the same, that Palestinians evokes with a dry, black humor : ‘we don’t complain – we have the right to be standing in the street, that’s nice’. [5]

The faculty to form projects for the future and to fear failure are held as distinctive features in a certain liberal imagination of the human. [6] Thus, the stakes are high, of knowing how we are to talk of those so constrained and limited in their action that they appear to be deprived of this faculty, and of this worry. Past a moment of commiseration, are we going to say that part of them has gone ‘spectral’ ? Every ethnographic enterprise implies grappling with forms of recognition and relatedness at hand. ‘This is a matter of ghetto mentality’, a local Palestinian political leader told me in Beirut in the summer 2003, describing, with a disillusioned tenderness, subjective dispositions that account for what he perceives as the refugees’ insufficient commitment to defend their Right of Return. In the context of this conversation, it was a call to a manner, familiar to both of us, of tying together social-political conditions and a state of denial regarding an imminent catastrophe, and of pointing to an absence in subjects that makes it possible for them to chain themselves to their own perdition. For an ethnographer trained in the US in the early 2000s, it also resonated with political theories of the subject in vogue, centered around the same historical referent, Europe’s ghettos and concentration camps of the first half of the twentieth century, and a similar foundational lack in subjects binding themselves to an external power (Agamben 1998). But an ethnographic engagement of the everyday reveals that the negativity characterizing an institutional order is not reflected in a rather simple manner, as Agamben seems to be willing to argue, in subjects barred from any positivity. It does not mean, however, that the everyday is an unproblematic category here.

What an ethnographic inquiry shows more surely to be in constant crisis in the circumstances just described, and which probably accounts for the problematic dimension of the everyday in many situations addressed by anthropological studies of ‘contingency’, is the relation of means to ends, the proportion of causes and effects. An ordinary means (your daily job) may have the least expectable end (you’re jailed because you had to practice this occupation illegally), or you may have to take the most dangerous steps (emigrating clandestinely) to meet ends claimed for the ordinary (a decent living for your family). This unequal, unstable distribution of the ordinary and the fateful, of the efficient and the vain, between causes and effects, cannot but affect action and the very passage of time. Pessoptimism is a fascinated relation to this ever-transforming disproportion of causes and effects. And it is on the basis of its relation to the workings of causes and uncertain effects, that pessoptimism will later be analyzed in relation to two distinct concepts of unpredictability, the possible and the virtual.


What is pessoptimism ? This is, literally, a Palestinian invention, the concept of a mode of existence coined and developed by Palestinian writer Emile Habiby in a milestone novel, The Secret Life of Saeed The Pessoptimist (2002). The book tells the story of Saeed, a Palestinian Candide caught amidst the creation of Israel and the tragedies that ensued for Palestinians. Here is what he says about his mother :

    • My mother is also a Pessoptimist [mutasha’ilah]. My older brother used to work at the port of Haifa. One day a storm blew up and overturned the crane he was operating, throwing them both onto the rocks and down into the sea. They collected his remains and brought them to us. Neither his head nor his insides could be found. He had been married less than a month and his bride sat weeping and bewailing her hard luck. My mother sat there too, crying silently.
    • Suddenly my mother became agitated and started beating her hands together. She said hoarsely : ‘It’s best it happened like this and not some other way !’
    • None of us was surprised at her conclusion except the bride, who was not from our family and therefore did not understand our kind of wisdom. She almost lost her mind and began screaming in my mother’s face, ‘What do you mean, ‘some other way’ ? You ill-fated […] hag ! What worse way could there have been ?’
    • My mother did not appreciate this childish outburst and answered with all the calm assurance of a fortune-teller : ‘For you to have run off during his life, my girl, to have run away with some other man.’
    • My brother’s widow did indeed run off with another man two years later and he turned out to be sterile. When my mother heard that he was so, she repeated her favorite saying, ‘And why should we not praise God ?’
    • So what are we, then ? Optimists or pessimists ? (Habiby 2002:13)


In the Summer of 2003, I followed for two months my friend Abu Saeed, whose friendship I had enjoyed for five years by then, and who operated at the time a service, a collective taxi, the most popular form of collective transportation in Lebanon. As a Palestinian refugee, he was not allowed to practice this occupation. His days were spent carrying people between the southern suburbs, especially the Palestinian camps, and downtown Beirut, trying to avoid police checkpoints and anticipating his arrest, the confiscation of his car, perhaps his imprisonment, and the catastrophic consequences for his wife and their 2 year-old daughter.

Abu Saeed was born in the camp of Tell El Zaatar in Beirut’s suburbs in 1959. Both his parents were from Dayr al-Qasi, a village in Upper Galilee which came under Israeli control on October 30, 1948 (Khalidi 1992:12-13). They settled and married in Tell Al Zaatar, where Abu Saeed, their first-born child, grew up. Abu Saeed’s father is remembered for making a living as a flamboyant gambler, a reputation in which Abu Saeed alone in the family takes great pride. He was killed at the beginning of the war in the massacre that followed the siege and fall of Tell Al Zaatar at the hands of Lebanese militias, and in which Abu Saeed himself barely survived by hiding under his mother’s skirts. This marked the start of a period of dispersal and increased hardship for the family. Abu Saeed joined a Palestinian armed group in Beirut for a couple of years, was badly injured in internecine fighting when this group split in two opposed factions, and finally took off for a small, rich country in the Arabic Gulf, where he was employed for ten years as an immigration officer. This position allowed him to support his mother, sisters and brothers back in Lebanon, and to be spared (except for short visits) the dreadful continuation of the war. At this time he married a Palestinian refugee of Lebanon living with her family in the Arabic Gulf like himself, but in a different country. They had a child, Saeed, were divorced a couple of years later. In the late eighties, somehow foreseeing the difficulties around the corner for Palestinians residing in the Gulf, Abu Saeed decided to try his luck elsewhere. He left his job, took all his money ($20,000) from the bank, entrusted half of it to an individual in Lebanon who promised a spectacular return on investments, and spent the rest of it in multiple, complicated attempts to emigrate to Europe. He and Saeed were eventually admitted to Denmark, applied for political asylum that, at the time, was relatively easy to get, but, after three years, Abu Saeed decided to come back to Lebanon.

Since then, Abu Saeed has been living in very tough conditions in post-war Beirut, where the return to the order of the law means renewed exclusion for Palestinians. Relations with his family are strained : they are upset with his “foolish choices”, and he resents their “ingratitude”. When I met him, he was sleeping here and there in buildings in construction, and working occasionally in positions that lasted one hour or less. In 2001, he married Samar, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon like him, and they had a daughter, Sabah, who is now seven years old. In early 2003, Abu Saeed managed to squeeze some money out of the man he had entrusted with his savings, and who had since gone bankrupt. They managed to take a room in a relatively nice section of the very poor southern suburbs of Beirut, and he bought an old Mercedes of the 200’ series – the stock brand, and the stock model, of Beirut’s services, or collective taxis, that take one to one’s destination, if it’s on their way, for a fix rate of 1,000 Lebanese lira ($0.66). That’s the way Abu Saeed was making a living in the summer 2003 when I arrived in Lebanon.

‘I eat from my sweat’, Abu Saeed once told me, pointing to the drops on his forehead. Sometimes he also said, when speaking about taxis, ‘we work for gas stations’, and the two formulas encompass, from a different angle, a mode of existence that did not seem to promise much further than the survival of the body, inserted in a machine itself caught amidst something much bigger. Considering the price of gas and Beirut’s traffic congestions, the profit one may get from driving a service is very uncertain ; it is not rare to lose money after ten hours or so of unsuccessful roaming in Beirut. Accordingly, time was tense in the car, as the routine was one of constant, minute calculation, evaluation, risk-taking, appraisal, negotiation with hard-headed clients, with in the background the flux of gas flooding under one’s feet from the tank to the engine : should I take this client ? How far is this place ? Is congestion likely on this way ? Will I find another client on the way ? Should I turn off my engine at this red light ?… However, Abu Saeed had apparently managed to balance quite strictly his profits and his expenses since he had the car : having paid his rent ($100 a month), and taking into account the family’s basic needs, he was still able to make a small profit, which he sometimes spoke of in a minor key (‘I live from day to day, I don’t worry about my coffee and my cigarettes’), sometimes in more positive terms, as something which rescued his life from immediate needs, as a short margin won on emergency, a way of taming the chaos of being poor, which he took meticulous care to enjoy as such. For example, he sometimes spoke with great pleasure of being able to select which debts to pay (‘let’s go pay this debt, because we can, and it may turn out to have been a smart thing to have done in the future’), to appreciate the life expectancy of commodities such as a big fan or a camping cupboard (‘I am poor, sell me your expensive merchandise, please’), to take the family to a couple of rides in the Ferris Wheel. Sometimes, Abu Saeed was also able to find, among the thousands affluent tourists coming to Beirut from the Gulf in the hottest days of the summer, a couple willing to be entertained and driven around, in which cases he made between fifty to 100 dollars in one day (‘You must shoot the bird before he flies away’), quickly followed by a form of celebration (Kentucky Fried Chicken, balloons, arak, gambling, local hash), and a return to the preceding routine.

But a crucial element has yet to be mentioned, or a tangle of three elements. Abu Saeed does not have a driver’s license. He acquired one in the Gulf, lost it, and did not deem it worth the price (at least $100) to get a new one in his current conditions. Secondly, the car’s papers were not in order for this kind of use. Indeed, the only official document that certified that he owned the car also certified that it was not allowed to run and ordered that the car be destroyed. Finally, Palestinians are not allowed to own taxi licenses (the official permission from the state to use one’s car as a taxi), which cost about $5,000 anyway. The last two elements were especially visible in the red, cast iron tags of Abu Saeed’s car, of an old, forbidden and disappearing kind, those of taxis in prewar Lebanon, and currently actively looked for by policemen, as part of the larger move towards restoration of the order of the law in post-war Lebanon. This circumstance added a stressful element to Abu Saeed’s work, since he could run into a police checkpoint at any moment in Beirut, an event which might have resulted in the confiscation of his car as well as his arrest. Stirring with a stick in the remains of a small fire after a picnic in the countryside, he once told me, ‘you see ? you find fire under the ashes– in my life, too.’ The possibility of an arrest terrified him, and he constantly underlined the limited dimension of his ability to preempt it (varying itineraries, inquiring from colleagues, spying on checkpoints, second-guessing the logic of their displacements, in any case being very focused and careful when driving). ‘Sometimes’, Abu Saeed said, ‘I am more afraid than during the war’ (where indeed it had sometimes been fatal to be stopped at a checkpoint for Palestinian males), and of this his body bore witness (‘When I saw him [a policeman], my heart fell in my shoes’).

Abu Saeed was actually arrested several times at checkpoints in the weeks I spent in Lebanon last summer, including a number of times in my presence, and he was always able to get out of it, by adopting alternatively a very low, or polite, or pitiable, or charming attitude. But these moments did not make him less certain of the imminence of his arrest, which was confirmed at some point by the arrest of a Palestinian colleague with whom we often drank coffee in the morning, and whose car was seized. Thus, the form of the future was quite certain ; uncertainty was limited to the question of when exactly this future would take concrete shape. The most telling sign of this unfinished certainty on his part was his constant wavering about, and eventually giving up on taking care of slowly accumulating minor problems on the car (windows falling apart one after the other, doors blocked, shattered headlights) : ‘I don’t take care of the car – you know why – because one of these days they’re going to take it’ ; or, another day : ‘I don’t take care of the car – you know why ? – because I feel it is not my car’. This dispossession in the future that contaminates property in the present, this temporal circuit whereby one finds oneself already alienated in the present from a property whose dispossession is anticipated in the near future (for what is it to own now what you know you won’t own tomorrow ?), this constant undermining of the everyday by the certainty of the imminent realization of the worst representable possibility is perceived by Abu Saeed to be a crucial element of the way in which Palestinians are barred access to normalcy. There is the corresponding joke :

    • At the end of the war, a bus is stopped at a Lebanese army checkpoint. Soldiers check ID. At the end of the bus, there is a Palestinian. He realizes that he changed his pants this morning, and forgot his ID in the pocket of his other pair of pants. His turn comes. He explains his situation. Noticing his Palestinian accent, the soldier says : ‘Uh oh, you’re Palestinian, and you have TWO pairs of pants ? You’re under arrest !’

Abu Saeed did not tire of developing in front of his (mostly Lebanese) clients the paradox that he did not wear his seat-belt for safety, but for the police, which was going to arrest him anyway, seize his car, maybe arrest him and, in any case destroy his present life, so why should he care about safety in the first place ? The closure of the future was also evoked, on a more collective mode, as the ironic blessing of being from ‘Gazajerichofirst’. In these specific circumstances, it endowed working time with a very peculiar quality, that of wondering every morning whether the day had come, an interrogation sometimes so pressing as to turn the present into the past of an already accomplished future.

What does it mean to cope in these conditions ? A few tricks, in which Abu Saeed only had a half-hearted confidence. Above all, justly calibrating one’s profile, not too high, not too low either, because ‘the good thief lives close to the police’ : saluting police officers when we recognized them, sometimes offering a cup of coffee, or giving a ride back home when a policeman had proved lenient at a checkpoint. But besides these minor arrangements, his intense relation to his wife, Samar, and to their daughter, Sabah, seemed capable of breaking off the pressure of stress and anticipation, and of creating the conditions of a certain plenitude. Not that the space of family care would not be affected by the general hardship. Abu Saeed was sometimes consumed by a sense of his inability to take care of them in such circumstances, which sometimes turned into unruly anger and the temptation to hand them over to Samar’s family, which is doing relatively well in the Gulf – this possibility was explicitly mentioned in distressingly cruel discussions on desperate days. But, alternatively, and overwhelmingly during what in retrospect appears as two blissful months, Abu Saeed made it to himself the most enjoyable duty to take care of Samar and Sabah, which implied spending as much as time as possible with them, which in turn implied taking them along in the taxi as much as possible. ‘When I am with them, I forget everything’ – or, even more bluntly, ‘When I am with them, it’s like making 500 dollars’. It meant not only that it was worth the lost clients ; not only that, as I could notice by myself, it made it very difficult for policemen to really harass, or arrest, Abu Saeed when he held his two-year old daughter on his lap. He told me again and again that the very presence of Samar and Sabah, whom he sometimes bitterly identified as the source of all his anxieties (it was primordially for them that he dreaded being arrested) could also give him an unshakable peace of mind. Abu Saeed never goes to the mosque, ‘it’s not for us’ he says mentioning his gambling father and even his father’s father, he does not expect much for himself (‘Allah will turn me into shawarma when I am dead’), but it was because Allah wanted it, for the sake of Samar and Sabah, that this whole service business functioned in the first place. Then what ? There was no possibility of saying much more. ‘Who knows about the future ? Nobody. God’. But sometimes, drumming joyously with his fist upon his chest, and nodding or pointing in direction of Samar and Sabah : ‘I KNOW IN MY HEART THAT MY GOD IS GOING TO HELP ME !’


What do me mean when we say that something is unpredictable ? And what is the relation of hope and despair to unpredictability ? For our matter, two orders of unpredictability must be distinguished (see Bergson, notably 1972:1322-1326 and 2003:99-116, and Deleuze 1996:177-185). Unpredictability pertaining to the order of the possible has that the possibility of things precedes their existence and that things are capable of representation beforehand : the possible is less than the real, the real minus existence, complete save for existence, and biding its time. Accordingly, the passage of time comes down to the possible becoming real by acquiring existence, or not (e.g. : a policeman could have arrested Abu Saeed today – he eventually let him go, but he said : ‘I’ll see you again ! And next time…’). This first figure of unpredictability is weak according to Bergson. Its limits follow from the nature of human intelligence, which, only capable of combining means with a view to further ends, must rely on a stable relation between causes and effects. It does not acknowledge that, when we delineate possibilities, ‘the possible is only the real with the addition of an act of the mind which throws its image back into the past, once it has been enacted’ (2003:109). Unpredictability pertaining to the order of the virtual, on the other side, has that an event becomes actualized (present) according to a line of differentiation, creativity (e.g. : one day when he is really fed up, Abu Saeed tells me that he would like to chuck everything and go die on the Marquises Islands ‘like this French singer, what was his name ?’ - ‘… ?! Jacques Brel ?’ - ‘Yes, that’s it, like Jacques Brel’). The distinction between the order of the possible and the order of the virtual revolves for a good part around the value of any representation of the future. Such representations are given, as imagined probabilities, when we co-ordinate means with a view to a remote end (Bergson 1992:145). They are given, more generally, in our habit of considering all forward movement as a progressive shortening of the distance between the point of departure and the point of arrival, and, by extension, of tracing movements in progress in the same way, reconstituting them, in anticipation, backwards from their projected ends. But there is a flaw when the passage of time is referred to imagined probabilities, futures capable of representation beforehand :

    • It does not follow that, because a movement can always be interpreted as the diminution of an interval when it has attained its end, it actually consisted in a progression towards this end ; an interval which has still but one extremity cannot diminish little by little, since it is not yet an interval. (72)

In other terms, ‘to perform an action, even one that is well-contrived and appropriate, is one thing, to forecast the outcome of it is another’ (135). Of the virtual, by contrast, that which actualizes itself along a line of differentiation, there is no perception as such, and certainly no representation. But some experiences pertain to the order of the virtual, some of them very ordinary : thus, the novelty sensed when we note that we cannot even foresee the unrolling of our inner life (2003:99-102).

Just like the possible and the virtual define two orders of unpredictability, they can also be referred to two distinct logics of emotions, depending on the presence or not of a representation. Emotions, Bergson noted, can be diversely related to representations (1992:40). A first category is constituted by emotions consecutive to mental pictures, resulting from intellectual states that owe nothing to them. Emotions pertaining to the order of the possible, insofar as they follow from produced representations of an anticipated future, are of this kind. This accounts for their mostly depressive tonality. Indeed, either the anticipated outcome, being taken to jail for example, is discouraging in itself ; or, if, like slipping unnoticed through police checkpoints, it is on the contrary desirable, it comes suffused with representations of failure, insofar as the perception of something as possible also entails the possibility of its non-realization, of its negation by the unrolling of time. This tendency to discouragement inherent to the intellectual apprehension of conditions as objective and pregnant with likely consequences, exposed by Bergson in the Two Sources of Morals and Religion, constitutes part of the pessoptimist’s silent knowledge : no reflection without foreknowledge, no foreknowledge without inquietude, no inquietude without a momentary slackening of the attachment to life (222). It was palpable in Abu Saeed’s unsolvable, exhausting indecision about the timeliness of affording minor repairs on the car, and in his bitter perception of the vanity of the few tricks that temporarily kept him out of trouble. The possible contains a little death, despair. But there is a second category of emotions, not consecutive to mental pictures, but on the contrary containing virtual representations, not yet formed, and actualized along lines of differentiation (40). Elsewhere, Bergson defined this category, that of ‘affection’, as ‘this most special perception where the object to be perceived coincides with my body, i.e., my body’s actual effort upon itself’ (1999:58). The body is seized by an intensity, an internal difference of levels, and the emotion consists in passages instantaneously apprehended (cf. Deleuze 2002:78). Accordingly, the corresponding figure of unpredictability is that of a presence acting directly upon the body – a presence through which it is eventually time, as changing time, the moving originality of things, that is made sensible (47-63). An emotion of this kind, Bergson notes, may eventually, but not necessarily, draw from its substance a representation, an intellectual state produced according to a logic of the body, as an extension of desire (1992:175). The grand stories told by pessoptimists, stories of ordinary giants, fall into this category. [7]

The conceptual distinction between the possible and the virtual pertains to the subjective-ethical formation called by E. Habiby pessoptimism, of which Abu Saeed gives another lesson. It accounts for the asymmetrical coexistence of hope and despair in a single subject, not as contradictory forms whose opposition would define a pathological subject, or whose resolution would mark the triumph of free will and rational deliberation, not as a perversely tortuous form of resignation or of retrospective illusion, nor even solely as broad perspectives on the orientation of times, activities of a knowing subject apprehending, with more or less certainty, a desired or hated object. ‘Cerebrally pessimistic, nervously optimistic’ (Deleuze 2002:46) : dissolving images of possible futures, mingling uncertainty with logical rigor, while the body is silently seized by the secure imminence of the unpredictable, unknown powers of the future knocking at the door (61). This distinction between the order of representation and the order of affect, the fact that what happens at the former level (prediction confirmed or proved wrong, illusion dissipated or vindicated), has little incidence at the later, is capital, and allows one to understand the existence of hope against all odds, and the difficulty its acknowledgement may present. It is not enough to denounce the fatalism of mistaken retrospective illusions, forms of reasoning that walk backward and under which resignation would try to dress up itself as hope, as long as space is not made for the presence of hope as a pure presentiment, presentiment without an object, guardian of its own truth. Hope, as time made sensible in passages of affects, needn’t have any token other than itself. It does not refer change to unlikely, exterior forces breaking into a local world and in opposition to which the subject would be defined as a stable entity, waiting. It experiences the capacity of the world to differ from itself as intimate. Only contingent relations bind it to representations that may fill its essential blindness, silence and exteriority – hence their apparent frivolity. Arguments that refute those can hardly touch it.


In November, back in Baltimore, I received the alarming news that Abu Saeed’s car had burnt. Fortunately, nobody had been hurt. I asked a friend of mine in Beirut to get the detailed story from Abu Saeed for me, and I received the following narrative, which Abu Saeed told me again face-to-face in virtually the same form on a later visit to Lebanon :

    • Abu Saeed’s car burnt about one month ago. He was driving his taxi in Hret Hreik, with some clients, at least a woman sitting in the back, when the car caught fire. They immediately got out and people arrived, some brought buckets of water to put out the flames, big ones, finally somebody brought a fire extinguisher and put the fire out. Somebody else brought a fire extinguisher, but this one was empty, which makes Abu Saeed laugh […] Finally, the fire brigade arrived, but 30 minutes later, and when telling this Abu Saeed had an air that meant that you can hardly expect more from them […] Once the car had finished burning, Abu Saeed left because he was afraid of having to deal with the police because of the papers not being in order. He came back that night with another taxi who asked for 15,000LL to tow the car to a garage. The mechanic asked for $150 to repair the engine. Abu Saeed said it was still good (? ??) […] but of course Abu Saeed does not have $150 on him, therefore he sells the car for $200, while he had paid $1000 for it.
    • Why did the car burn ? On that day when the car burnt, Abu Saeed had filled a plastic bottle with gas and he had put it into the trunk. He was following the advice of his wife, you know that taxis always run with an almost empty tank, therefore it was a good idea, because, thanks to this bottle, if he ever ran out of gas, he would not have to go to a station. This bottle was a sign from God. You’re going to understand. So, he’s running, and suddenly he smells a strong smell of gas. Finally, he stops, and he goes and checks whether the plastic bottle had opened in the trunk. No, but still, he shuts it again, twice rather than once. He gets going again, it’s still smelling like gas but he says to himself that if the bottle has leaked, it’s normal and it’s going to pass. Finally, the car burns. He’ll learn that the reason was not the bottle but the gas inlet leaking on the carburetor […] Why was it a sign from God ? He eventually told me that it was better like this, ‘Allah bedo’, God who wants it, and he instructed me to repeat it to you. Because Allah knows better than Abu Saeed what is good for him, that is, not to have a taxi, because since he is illegal he could end up in prison, and then he could not take care of Samar and Sabah, and God could not allow this. Therefore, if he had not had the bottle, he would have found out the real reason of the gas smell, and the car would not have burnt. QED.

The voice animating this narrative is undoubtedly Abu Saeed’s. He and Samar got married three years ago. Samar was already a mother of two and she was coming out of a tough first marriage. She fell passionately in love with Abu Saeed and literally agreed to live in the streets with him, which provoked great anger in her family. In Abu Saeed’s circle, everybody similarly disapproved of a marriage with a woman seen as excessively reserved and unassuming, ‘like a child’, a nice but simple heart of which he would not be able to take care anyway. I mentioned before how Abu Saeed’s worries and peace of mind were directly related to Samar and Sabah : an imprisonment would be catastrophic first and foremost for them ; but ‘Allah sends clients for the sake of Samar and Sabah. And Allah makes me escape checkpoints for the sake of Samar and Sabah’. Or, holding Samar in his arms or nodding in her direction : ‘I know that my God will help me’. He had told me, in the summer following the marriage, when he was consumed by doubts and shame about his ability to take care of a homeless, pregnant Samar with whom he roamed helplessly in the streets of Beirut : ‘Look at her ! Sometimes I really think she is an angel…’ And this past summer, again, several times, at Samar smiling embarrassedly : ‘Sometimes, I think that God sent her to me.’


1. Of this story (the end of the car), there is a simple, suspicious interpretation : a grand example of retrospective illusion, the very instance of man’s sad inclination to make a virtue of necessity. But more is at stake for the pessoptimist : the narration is an affirmation, of the unpredictable nature of things, developing before our tired eyes, and of the relevance of an affect of hope. Samar and Abu Saeed prove to be doing something else than what they thought or had planned. Disaster itself proves to be otherwise than what was possible. The passage from the abstract catastrophe itself to its concrete instantiation, from the virtual to the actual, carries along a feeling of admiration and, eventually, a strange enthusiasm.

2. Abu Saeed’s hope, and his story, are certainly directly related to a form of Islamic tradition. In this paper, I did not pursue this direction, because I wanted to lay the emphasis on pessoptimism as a mode of existence. I felt entitled to do so, to an extent, by a number of factors. The actual referents of Islamic traditions, whatever we consider them to be (scriptures, ritual practices, etc) are, to my knowledge, not called upon in this formation of hope, save for the name of God. Moreover, as has been said before, Abu Saeed is quite categorical about the status of religious practice among his male relatives : ‘this is not for us’, a long lineage of gamblers. His faith, quite real, is content with an indefinitely delayed revelation : ‘Allah and Sheitan [Satan] shoot at each other, and we are the bullets’, but there is no way of knowing for sure whether one is Allah’s, or Sheitan’s, bullet. In any case, hope is not grounded in the accomplishment of duties, except for the care of Samar and Sabah. Thirdly, as emphasized before, hope passes through bodies – his own, and, differently, theirs : the eternity Abu Saeed and Samar grapples with can be revealed only in a becoming – an organic road to metaphysics. [8]

3. This story unfolds at two levels : it shows Abu Saeed, and Samar as well, doing more than what they can represent themselves to be doing. It requires a number of comments. First, it accounts for its comical dimension, in which I know Abu Saeed to be taking great delight. It is the irresistible comical fact of our actions being proved vain by the passage of time, and yet successful at another level, a burlesque formula. In the finitude of our understanding is revealed the familiarity, in pessoptimism, of hope and laughter – similarly, after all, a vindication of the body. Secondly, it is a reply to dispossession with a dispossession even greater : attacked in his belongings, one surrenders one’s actions, and perhaps even one’s self, and of this redoubled defeat expects a triumph. This gesture of abandonment that draws a steadfast line from one’s possessions to the capacity of possessing oneself, shows the extraordinary challenges posed to the self by an ordinary environment where no property of any kind can be considered as secure. Having given up on being master and possessor of a world cracked by such internal differences that it cannot be said to even possess itself, the pessoptimist is precisely concerned with establishing with what happens to him or her a relation other than that of ownership : in this instance, not only one of camaraderie, as has often been suggested (see among others William James in Bergson 1992:164), but even one of care, since what happens is what is good for Abu Saeed and Samar, unbeknownst to them. Thirdly, pessoptimism also reveals that action is not always strategic. Beside the order of strategy (combinations of means with a view to further ends), there is a second order of action, where even well-contrived and appropriate acts may be accomplished without any imagination of their outcome (cf. 135). A lot of our anthropological concepts resist this possibility, because they find a principle of intelligibility in the decomposition of actions into means and ends. Thus, the habitus, or the Freudian unconscious, are strategizing entities. Pessoptimists posit that the end will necessarily be different from what was intended ; or (that’s the same) that, except maybe for Allah, there are neither means nor ends. At the very least, it should encourage anthropologists to look for an alternative notion of strategy, one that would accommodate the fact that the implementation of means implies a differentiation, that the end is unfathomable. Lastly, what is my body, then, if I am dispossessed of my actions ? Referring hope to a presence acting directly upon the body does not mean that the body is a transparent category here ; nor should it be understood as too a simple call to the register of the visceral. The delimitation of my body is partly function of the demands of action – especially if I define it as a most direct means of action, the center where my action originates (274-275). But what if, as in Abu Saeed’s story, my action is, so to say, de-centered ? If I am dispossessed of my body, this part of the world always present to me, as a center of action, and my action is scattered in others’ bodies : Samar and Sabah, certainly, and even, to a lesser degree, the old Mercedes ? This is the most amazing return of the social – under the form of love ? – in what might have looked otherwise to be a solipsistic affair. Even if we cling to defining the body as a means of action, it must be acknowledged that Samar’s body is needed for the effectuation of the car’s disappearance. To pawn one’s hope, as I believe Abu Saeed then did, to somebody else’s presence, is also to constitute an extended, virtual body, that may include other persons and things, an abode of virtual actions, which bears witness to yet another dimension of the connection of hope and care.

4. Pessoptimism presents important similarities to forms of recovery in the aftermath of violence that Veena Das describes as grounded in ‘the work of time’ (Das 2000) : as has been mentioned above, in respect of the subject’s experience, on an intimate mode, of the capacity of the world to differ from itself ; but also in respect of ethics and silence. In opposition to impatient, voluntaristic stances on the handling of trauma, bent on the production of linguistic artifacts that would allow for catharsis or offer a grasp to therapeutic manipulations, Veena Das notes, on the silence of a woman regarding forms of violence she suffered during the Partition, that ‘there is a deep moral energy in the refusal to represent certain violations of the human body, for these violations are seen as being “against nature”, as defining the limits of life itself’ (70). The case of pessoptimism is immensely different, but the stakes are similar, to hold in check depressing representations that dissolves the attachment to life (Bergson 1992:159). There is similarly a deep moral energy in an insistent presence acting directly upon the body in hope, which makes impossible representations, whether in a place or at a distance, of the future of a life caught in a web of very limited possibilities (cf. Deleuze 2002:53) : call this moral energy a very powerful shame, in the name of life, of the conditions made to life. The trauma triad of repression (as obstacle to recovery), abreaction (of the pathogenic affect) and repossession (of one’s self), gives way to the pessoptimistic triad of dodging (of dissolving memories or predictions), fonction fabulatrice (production, in storytelling or otherwise, of indomitable figures running on from emotions and the body), dispossession (of the self in relation to time) : two typologies of the subject in relation to violence, quite different from one another.


The path of pessoptimism is riddled with perils, abysses of thought like those mapped by Henri Michaux in relation to other forms of dispossession of the self (1961). Abu Saeed is an important friend of mine, and as years pass, and as he knows, his ability to hold in check discouraging images sometimes frightens me. As I am writing this last paragraph, I am told that the car’s replacement, another Mercedes, is also gone, and that Abu Saeed’s, Samar’s and Sabah’s situation has deteriorated alarmingly, back to the chaotic poverty from which the service had offered a temporary shelter. Nasty comments fly here and there among his relatives and friends in Shateela, on his laziness, cunningness, and stubborn refusal to take up a job more in tune with what is available to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. It is difficult not to see the trace of pessoptimism in what they blame as an incredibly poor management of everyday life – a jammed, frozen pessoptimism, where the talent for abandonment turns into a general burning of bridges, giving up of all contacts. Frozen, suffocating certainty, showering down upon everything, capable to reply to anything. Enthusiasm for nothing : perfidious excessive presence, that once grounded hope, and now urges to steam ahead, impetuously, to exert oneself in innumerable manners that cannot really be controlled. Crippling, also, the greatness of pessoptimism, when everything in comparison appears petty and of lesser importance, and patience suddenly turns into its contrary : intolerance to work, mundane duties, everyday survival, average real. And finally, the habit, so quickly picked, of removing oneself from what has just happened, the irresistible appeal of evasions : declining not only discouraging pictures of the future, but given pictures of the present and of the past as well, a freeing that may not leave much to trade. The great historical, political, economic forces of dispossession that Palestinians as a people have had to grapple with, have put Abu Saeed in contact with powerful, perilous forces within himself, that sometimes threaten to carry him away and, most disturbingly, Samar and Sabah with him. The air may sometimes be rare, when you stand, with the pessoptimist, on the continual, and always different, passage of God.



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Deleuze, G. 1996. Dialogues. L’Actuel et le Virtuel. Paris : Champs Flammarion.

—. [1981]2002. Francis Bacon. Logique de la sensation. Paris : Seuil.

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[1] . I steal these words from the French poet René Char : Comment peut-on vivre sans inconnu devant soi ?

[2] . The number of Palestinians in Lebanon is the object of heated debates. The number of registered refugees given by the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (the agency created in 1949 to alleviate the refugee crisis) for August 2003 was 391,679, but estimations vary from 200,000 to 600,000 (Salam 1994:204). The numbers I use are estimations found in Picard (2002:180) and Courbage (2002).

[3] . The Refugee Working Group set up after the Madrid conference to address the issue of refugees and inaugurated in Ottawa in May 1992 has failed, as of its final meeting in December 1995, to produce any encouraging results (Rempel 1999). The Geneva accord, negotiated in the absence of grass-root refugee representatives and not including even a nominal recognition of the Right of Return, cannot be seen as a significant step on this peculiar issue and was bound to be met with skepticism in refugee communities.

[4] . Refugees de facto find themselves excluded from more than seventy professions and forced to take jobs on the black market that offer low wages, insecurity and no benefits (Picard 2002:180 ; Haddad 2000:30 ; Shiblak 1996:42-43 ; Peteet 1996:28-29 ; Al Natour 1993:164-192). Access to education after the 6th grade is almost completely denied (Haddad 2000 : 30), as is access to health services (Shiblak 1996:43 ; Sayigh 1995:48-49). Until June 2000, the figures for Palestinian refugees of Lebanon in UNRWA’s public health indicators were comparable only to, and often worse than, those of refugees of Gaza. A series of official vetoes (against the reconstruction of camps destroyed by war, especially in the South ; against the establishment of new camps ; against building on empty land on the edges of the camps) has created an endless housing crisis. For those better off, an amendment to the foreigner real estate acquisition law passed in 2001 prohibits the acquisition of ‘any real estate property of any kind’ for ‘persons not enjoying a nationality from a recognized state.’ (Al Natour nd:6-7).

[5] . Unless signaled otherwise, all quotations were collected during fieldwork in Beirut and Saida, Lebanon, in June, July and August 2003.

[6] . Including Bergson. See 1992:215-216 : ‘Man is the only animal whose actions are uncertain, who hesitates, gropes about and lays plans in the hope of success and the fear of failure.’

[7] . Bergson calls fonction fabulatrice (fabulatory function) the faculty to produce them.

[8] . Cf. Michaux 1961, 233 : ‘Dans la métaphysique, par voie organique.’